JERUSALEM -- After years of delays, petitions and revisions, Israel on Monday launched a controversial biometric identification program.
During the two-year pilot project, Israelis will be able to opt for a new identification card or passport with electronic parts such as a secure chip, along with biometric data including fingerprint scans and a photo providing a facial profile that will go to a database.
Gideon Saar, minister of interior affairs, called on Israelis to "enter the era of smart documents," maintaining that the new technologies embedded in the cards would make them counterfeit-proof and protect Israelis from identity theft and related financial crime as well as from security threats.
According to government data, about 160,000 identification cards and passports are lost or stolen every year, and the number of fake IDs in circulation could be double that number.
Most Israelis favor a smart makeover of the old, easily forged paper documentation, but many object to the biometric components for privacy and safety reasons.
Opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich called the pilot an "experiment on human beings" and warned that the database was a "dangerous opening for trampling of human rights," including potential daily surveillance of citizens.
Last year, the High Court of Justice rejected a petition by the Assn. for Civil Rights in Israel arguing that the project was unconstitutional after the government agreed to some changes. However, the court called the database an "extreme and harmful measure."
Israel's low-tech population database leaked out years ago, and opponents warn that a biometric database similarly would be an accident waiting to happen. Stolen biometric information could be abused for incriminating innocent people and for surveillance, opponents say, and it could hamper intelligence operations and put agents at risk.
Gon Kemeny, head of the National Biometric Authority, nonetheless argued that the database will be hack-proof, with the encrypted data sitting on a designated network separated from the public Internet, with no online access.
Kemeny, formerly an information security expert for the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security agency, told Israel Radio that the security mechanisms were "unprecedented." But in an interview last year, Kemeny conceded that someone with authorized access might copy information.
For now, the law does not require Israelis to give biometric data. After the two-year test run, the government will decide whether to make the project mandatory or discontinue it and destroy the database.
During the trial, no information will be given from the database to the police or other government bodies, but a news release on the project did not specify whether that would remain the case if the plan continued.
A few years ago, a survey carried out by the Israeli Law, Information and Technology Authority -- a Justice Ministry unit overseeing data protection but not the new biometric database -- found a majority of Israelis believe their personal data are not protected.
A few dozen activists demonstrated Monday in Rishon LeZion, where the pilot was launched. Members of No2Bio, a group fighting the biometric database for years, circulated leaflets urging citizens to refuse to participate in "a dangerous experiment, from which there will be no turning back."
Meanwhile, Saar told the public that "there's no cause for panic," adding that Israelis applying for visas to the U.S. give more extensive biometric data without apparent concerns.