Ministers back bill to legalize widespread police use of facial recognition tech

Touted as a tool to fight violent crime in Arab communities, cameras could be deployed in public spaces with minimal oversight; bill also okayed by Justice Ministry legal adviser

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, left, and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene of a terror attack in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, outside of Jerusalem, August 1, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, left, and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene of a terror attack in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, outside of Jerusalem, August 1, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

A ministerial panel voted on Monday to lend cabinet support to a government-sponsored bill to legalize police usage of facial recognition cameras placed in public spaces across Israel.

The legislation, backed by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, is being billed as a government effort to tackle crime in Arab communities, but critics say it lacks sufficiently clear oversight guardrails on the powerful technology, especially in light of recent alleged police misuse of other advanced tools.

Sources close to Levin said that the bill was rushed into a special session of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, where it was the only item on the agenda, in order to prepare it for an upcoming special session of the Knesset, planned to be held before the parliament returns from recess on October 15. The Knesset is set to hold its next special session on Tuesday, but the source said the draft bill was unlikely to be ready in time.

Formal backing from the Ministerial Committee on Legislation eases a bill’s passage through the Knesset, and generally coalesces into coalition support for the legislation. The panel’s Monday approval of the bill is subject to a number of reservations posed by the committee.

Prior to Monday’s meeting, a Justice Ministry legal adviser issued a legal opinion that supported the bill, but also highlighted the expectation for follow-on legislation to refine the tool’s usage and privacy protections.

The Israel Police supports the bill, and on Monday, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai hailed facial recognition tech as a “life-saving tool” that could be critical to fighting organized crime, especially in Arab communities.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin seen during a government conference at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on September 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“The bill that is being submitted today for approval by the ministerial committee is a life-saving tool, without which the Israel Police would not be able to deal with criminal terrorism, murder incidents, and assassination attempts in the Arab sector,” Shabtai told his senior command staff at their weekly meeting.

So far in 2023, 166 Arab Israeli citizens have been killed by violent crime, according to the Abraham Initiatives, in addition to nine non-citizen Palestinians. This figure is more than double the 79 Arab victims of crime over the same period in 2022.

According to the bill, police will be allowed to deploy the facial recognition technology to “prevent, thwart or uncover serious crime and those involved in planning or carrying it out.” The legislation is similar to another bill, awaiting its final Knesset votes, that would retroactively legalize the use of the controversial, unregulated Hawk-Eye program, which can track and identify license plates and determine whether the vehicle was stolen or if its owner’s driver’s license is expired.

The bill would also let the police retain and use data gathered by the biometric facial recognition cameras to investigate criminal activity, but requires the police to purge data not used for a real-time identification within 72 hours.

Arab Israeli mourners carry the casket of Abdel Rahman Kashua, the director-general of the Arab city of Tira in Israel, who was gunned down at a gas station, during his funeral procession outside the Tira police station, on August 23, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

In 2020, a police source said that the force has been compiling information on the movements of Israelis not suspected of any crime in a secret database. Police said at the time that the system’s use was “validated by judicial means and used in an orderly fashion when needed.”

While Shabtai said that the proposed bill represents “a balance between the need to preserve human life and the importance of protecting individual rights,” critics say that there is no clear supervision mechanism.

In its current draft, the bill only provides loose supervisory guidelines, and would grant police broad authority to deploy facial recognition cameras in public spaces. On Monday, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation attached conditions to its approval, including explicitly excluding “freedom of expression events,” such as demonstrations, from camera deployment.

Ben Gvir has repeatedly pushed for harsher enforcement against the mass protests that have been held for the past eight months against the government’s judicial shakeup plan, itself spearheaded by Levin.

Furthermore, the bill puts police in charge of supervising their own use of the cameras, though the force is obligated to make annual reports to the Knesset and the attorney general on camera usage.

National Security Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Coastal Region Police Commander Yoram Sofer present a new proposal to eradicate crime in the Arab community, in Jerusalem on August 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There are also concerns that the new technology can infringe upon privacy, especially as the cameras require access to existing databases of biometric photographs in order to make real-time identifications.

This includes biometric photographs held by a number of law enforcement agencies, including the Israel Defense Forces, the Shin Bet, and any other public organ tapped by the justice minister, with the approval of the Knesset’s National Security Committee.

The Ministerial Committee on Legislation also conditioned its support for the bill on a discussion being held with the authority that supervises biometric data application “about technological supervision and the duration [for holding] the photographs,” according to a spokesperson for Levin.

Shabtai claimed that “the tool will be used only subject to supervision and control mechanisms that will ensure its use for purposes set by law and under [legal] restrictions,” and that similarly unspecified “sanctions” would be imposed for misuse.

The police have faced much scrutiny but few repercussions for overstepping court-issued warrants while deploying spyware technology to hack Israelis’ phones. The full extent of police use of the NSO Group’s Pegasus software and similar technology still remains unclear.

Since becoming national security minister in December, the far-right Ben Gvir has pushed for expanded powers, even as his requests have come up against civil rights concerns.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a surveillance technology policy expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, wrote on X on Sunday that the Ben Gvir- and Levin-backed bill “that would allow the police to place facial recognition cameras in public spaces and at demonstrations with minimal supervision” is “as horrible and dangerous as it sounds.”

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