Microsoft backed a company whose AI software surveils Palestinians

An Israeli startup invested in heavily by American companies, including Microsoft, produces facial recognition software used to conduct biometric surveillance on Palestinians, investigations by NBC and Haaretz revealed.

In June, Microsoft — which has touted its framework for ethical use of facial recognition — joined a group investment of $78 million to AnyVision, an international tech company based in Israel. One of AnyVision’s flagship products is Better Tomorrow, a program that allows the tracking of objects and people on live video feeds, even tracking between independent camera feeds.

AnyVision’s facial recognition software is at the heart of a military mass surveillance project in the West Bank, according to the NBC and Haaretz reporting. An Israeli Defense Forces statement in February acknowledged the addition of facial recognition verification technology to at least 27 checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank to “upgrade the crossings” and, in an effort to “deter terror attacks,” rapidly installed a network of over 1,700 cameras across the occupied territories. The combination of tools gives Israel the ability to watch Palestinians all over the West Bank.

This is not the first time Israel has engaged in mass surveillance. In the late 2000s, Israeli intelligence services were monitoring Israeli citizens, mostly Arabs, and Palestinians use of Facebook and other social media platforms by looking for specific keywords.

China has ramped up its surveillance of its Uighur minority population using artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology

But Microsoft has positioned itself against this kind of use of facial recognition, even releasing guiding ethical principles to the line of work.

Shankar Narayan, director of the Technology and Liberty Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an interview with Forbes that he met with Microsoft last year and they had reciprocated his interests in slowing international access to facial recognition technology. Still, he said, he wasn’t surprised. “This particular investment is not a big surprise to me—there’s a demonstrable gap between action and rhetoric in the case of most big tech companies and Microsoft in particular,” Narayan told Forbes’s Thomas Brewster.

AnyVision Chief Compliance Officer Max Constant denied the company’s involvement in surveillance of Palestinians in the territories in a statement to Vox, saying that the technology is used indiscriminately at checkpoints. “We are in complete agreement that AI facial recognition technology should be treated with extreme caution,” Constant said in an emailed statement. “We actively advocate for regulation of these technologies to ensure their safe use around the world. We are proud of that track record.”

How Israel uses technology to conduct surveillance on Palestinians

A 2018 privacy law updated Israeli citizens’ protections enshrined in a constitutional right to privacy, required that databases of information collection register with the government, and requires that information on Israeli citizens be done only with their consent. With exceptions for national security, this move brought Israeli privacy law to a higher bar than that of EU regulations.

But Palestinians living in the West Bank don’t hold Israeli citizenship and, therefore, are not protected by Israeli privacy laws. Israeli lawyer Jonathan Klinger attributed the surveillance to permissive legal gaps.

“What you have to understand that Israel has three separate legal systems” — one for Israelis inside Israel, one for Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and one for Palestinians living in the territories — “which cause a lot of the actual legal problems we face,” Klinger said.

Israel’s monitoring of Palestinians goes far beyond facial recognition. The country also monitors Palestinian’s social media for cause to arrest them on charges of incitement or intent to carry out a terror attack. The artificial intelligence provided by AnyVision is virtually inescapable.

Yael Berda, a Hebrew University professor who served as a lawyer representing Palestinians denied entry permits in Israeli courts, writes in her book Living Emergency that in order to have a permit to cross into Israel proper, Palestinians must consent to the collection of their biometric data.

“The intelligence services are seen as omnipotent,” said Berda in an interview with Vox. “It creates a powerful vortex of control.”

Searching social media, fielding tips, and considering demographics results in organized tracking of Palestinians for use by the Israeli civil administration, Berda said. Palestinians determined to be a threat or danger end up on a list that bars them from moving through checkpoints. She estimates that upward of 250,000 people are on this list, and that number is only growing.

Berda’s experience with the way that Israel collects information on Palestinians makes her skeptical of the country refraining from using facial recognition.

“I don’t see a reason, legally, not to use [facial recognition] in checkpoints against terrorists, but I don’t like it,” Klinger said. “It’s a huge violation of [Palestinians’] privacy.”

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