Israeli Ministerial Committee Greenlights Facial Recognition Cameras in Public Spaces

Parliament will determine whether police can legally deploy facial recognition technology in public to prevent crime. The coalition is for such surveillance, but the opposition sees this bill as infringing on privacy and democracy.

By Keren Seton/The Media Line

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation gave preliminary approval on Monday for a bill that will legalize the use of facial recognition cameras in public places across Israel, allowing for use of the data to investigate criminal activities.

The bill still needs to be approved by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

Coined the “Big Brother bill,” it was introduced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. In addition to overseeing the police, Ben Gvir is also the leader of the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit party and has pushed for expanded authority. This includes using Israel’s Shin Bet security agency to fight soaring crime rates among Arab-Israelis and loosening gun control to allow more citizens to carry weapons. Meanwhile, Levin is behind the contentious judicial overhaul, which the ruling government coalition, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been pushing.

When the Big Brother bill was first introduced in February, it came as part of a legislative blitz encompassing dozens of proposals the government was promoting that pertain to every aspect of Israeli life. According to the bill, if passed into law, it will allow the police to deploy facial recognition technology in public areas in an effort to “prevent and thwart … serious crime.”

As part of the legislation blitz, the Knesset also approved a temporary order that allows police to search a person’s home without a warrant if there is suspicion of illegal weapons being held there. This is in conjunction with the increased use of other surveillance technologies by police, including close tracking of vehicular movements and license plate tracking. The latter is believed to already be employed by the police, according to various reports.

While the Netanyahu coalition believes that the judicial overhaul and other laws are necessary to increase governance in the country and reinstate law and order as they see it, the opposition believes that the aim of the government is to gradually weaken Israel’s democracy. Since the government announced its overhaul plan in January, there have been widespread demonstrations against the plan.

“You cannot have a democracy without privacy; this is a basic condition,” attorney Gil Gan-Mor told The Media Line. According to Gan-Mor, who is the unit director of Civil and Social Rights, Human Rights in the Digital Age Project at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, this bill is “dangerously extreme” and is leading Israel to become a “surveillance society.”

The bill is seen by Ben Gvir and others in government as part of their attempt to combat crime among the Arab population in Israel. Since the government was sworn in last year, rates of homicide have risen dramatically. From the beginning of 2023, more than 170 Arab Israelis have been killed in violence. On the campaign trail, Ben Gvir promised to be tough on crime. So far, he has not delivered and has come under heavy criticism for it.

The reasons for the high crime rates are wide and varied. They are also deeply rooted and will not necessarily decline with the use of sophisticated measures. Many experts agree that a broad plan that tackles the issue on various levels is needed.

Facial recognition technology is a contentious issue globally. It is used around the world in different ways; some countries employ the technology more liberally, while others have stringent limitations on its use. Critics and civil rights activists and regulators worldwide are concerned that it infringes on people’s privacy, given that they are monitored frequently.

According to Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and head of the institute’s Democracy in the Information Age program, most developed countries have begun backtracking on the use of such technologies, with some even completely forbidding the use. The cameras allow police forces to become akin to intelligence forces that countries normally use only to counter external threats. The Israeli military is believed to use facial recognition to monitor the movements of Palestinians in the West Bank and at border crossings with the Gaza Strip. This use has been criticized by international human rights organizations.

“The problem with biometric cameras is that they cause many mistakes, partly because they have a strong bias against people with darker skin color, which creates over-policing towards certain populations,” Shwartz Altshuler told The Media Line. “But also, because of the artificial intelligence systems used by these cameras, there is a depth of information that can be provided by them.”

Continued Shwartz Altshuler, “It tips the balance between the police and the citizens in a very problematic way.”

According to the bill’s draft, a senior police officer can make the decision regarding deployment of the cameras. While the initial use is limited in time, the police officer will be able to extend the period of use on his own. The police will have to provide annual reports on the use of the technology to the Knesset and the Attorney General.

“This provides a wide opening to spy on people regularly and collect intelligence on them,” Gan-Mor said. “It is the police and not the courts who determine who will be under surveillance and where the cameras are installed. This will lead to wholesale generalization of people.”

The proposal allows the police to keep the information collected for 72 hours. There is no mention of who oversees guaranteeing the deletion of the information or how it will be stored. This could potentially lead to sensitive, private information being leaked to malicious people or groups.

“This can yield enormous amounts of intelligence, which can be easily manipulated, especially without judicial oversight,” added Gan-Mor, who alluded to such information being used to prevent people from participating in demonstrations by claiming there is intelligence against them.

“In the end, we will see abuse of this information, because no one is really good at self-restraint when they have so much information at their fingertips,” said Shwartz Altshuler.

Previous governments have also tried to promote similar bills, which were later shot down. The current bill was put on the Ministerial Committee’s agenda for this week. Parliament is currently in recess, so a vote will not occur before next month at the earliest. Since this government coalition has a solid majority in parliament, there is a higher chance that the bill will be approved.

The protest movement against the government has been focused on the judicial reform. Without public outcry against this bill, it may very well pass in the coming Knesset winter session.

“The public doesn’t always perceive such a move as an infringement because it is not visible to the eye or tangible,” said Gan-Mor. “There are deep consequences to such a law.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Israeli intelligence technology was used for contact tracing of people with the virus. The method was subject to public criticism at the time, but with little judicial oversight, the government continued to employ it in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. Israel was one of the few countries in the world to do so.

Today, the government is hard-pressed to find a solution to mounting crime rates. But in its attempt to show the public it is doing something, the government has paid a price that is considered by many to be too high.

“The damage of such a system is so big, it should be forbidden,” concluded Shwartz Altshuler. “It is all a matter of what we are trading off.”

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