Israel approves using police facial recognition cameras on city streets

Government committee approves bid to fast-track use of advanced facial recognition cameras in fight against Arab crime wave; Opponents warn of ‘Big Brother’ implications.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

A bill legalizing the dispersal of facial recognition cameras in public places so that police can better fight crime has been fast-tracked for Knesset approval Monday.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation convened a special session Monday during the Knesset’s official recess to approve the bill, which is sponsored by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

The use of facial recognition technology is seen as vital tool in combating rising crime, especially in the Arab sector.

Most media attention has been paid to the protection rackets and murders attributed mostly to organized crime, with the number of deaths far outstripping previous years.

According to the Abraham Initiatives NGO, 174 Arabs have been murdered by internecine violence in 2023 so far, in comparison to 77 in the same period last year.

Ben-Gvir especially has been harshly criticized for not keeping his campaign promise to bring safety to all of Israel’s citizens, including the Arab sector.

Under the bill, cameras will be placed at key positions on specific streets deemed to be of particular importance for combating crime.

A senior officer will have to authorize their positioning on specific roads after being provided information “that this is necessary for a specific operational purpose, due to a high probability of serious crimes that endanger the life of a person… public safety or the security of the state.”

The technology enables the search for a particular identifying mark so that an alert can be sent in real time to the authorities, which could either allow them to prevent or catch the criminal or terrorist in the act, or find them quickly after the fact.

Such technology has been used for years by the IDF and intelligence agencies to catch terrorists.

The bill also retroactively regulates the use of the “Hawkeye” system that tracks moving vehicles across the country. Mounted both on main roads and on police cars, its smart cameras can identify license plates to see if vehicles have been stolen, or used in the commission of a crime or terror attack.

A Walla report revealed the unsupervised police use of the then-secret system three years ago, although it had begun in 2014.  Civil rights organizations then decried the lack of oversight that could lead to its misuse, with such a huge database of video footage being preserved for at least six months if not years, according to a police source cited in the report.

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Critics of the bill are calling it “Big Brother in the public sphere,” warning that it will be the basis for constructing a biometric database of the citizenry and violate people’s right to privacy.

Groups protesting the government’s judicial reform proposals are going even further in their denunciations.

“Placing cameras in the public space is a clear sign of dark regimes with one common denominator – dictatorship,” said Hofshi B’Artzeinu (“To be free in our country”), while the Kaplan Force called it “a hallucinatory proposal that comes from the Iranian Ayatollah regime that spies on the opponents of the regime.”

Levin’s office countered that “The minister insists that high-level approvals will be required in order to use the system, there will be supervision, and the use of the database will only be done for the purposes of fighting serious crime.”

Safeguards such as an annual police report to the Knesset on the use of the technology, and consideration of the biometric information as completely confidential, are also built into the bill.

Versions of this bill have been discussed on and off since at least 2013, including during the previous government.