Under (Facial) Recognition: The Rise of Israeli Oppressive Cyber Technologies in Times of Pandemic

by Jonathan Hempel
| Apr 12, 2022

Much like in the global spyware market, Israeli companies stand at the forefront of the industry of face-recognition cameras. Are these means of surveillance, used against Palestinians and activists worldwide, following us as well? The authorities remain silent on the matter, but efforts to expand their use are consistent.

By Jonathan Hempel

The reports on the spyware developed by the Israeli surveillance company NSO caused a media and public outcry. However, it’s important to remember that it is far from being the only spyware out there. A billion- dollar global market exists beyond it, one where companies provide countries with the tools to illegally track and spy on their own citizens. 

One of the most talked about spyware from the last few years is the technology of biometric face recognition. This technology has already attracted much criticism, and in some cases its use has been banned. Face recognition technology may sound more innovative and futuristic than dangerous and harmful, however this technology as well as other means of biometric surveillance have already become part of our everyday life. It is used everywhere: in airports, in our cell phones, in the supermarket, and of course by “security forces”. While this technology does indeed have several potential advantages, it also raises a plethora of problems and risks concerning privacy, security, human rights, and the oppression of those who oppose their regime, as well as of minority groups.

So how does it work?    

Software scan photo stocks, including pictures from driver licenses and police photos, and crosscheck them with footage from security cameras, street cameras, and videos from other sources. These software systems then map out facial features which allow for matching and recognition. The main feature captured by these software systems is facial geometry; the distance between the eyes, between forehead and chin etc. Those create what is called “signature identification” – a mathematical formula which can then be compared to the photo stocks.

The facial recognition market is growing exponentially. According to studies from the past year, facial recognition is expected to grow from a 3.8-billion-dollar industry in 2020, to 8.5-billion-dollars by 2025. The most significant use of this industry is in surveillance – a fact which raises concerns among the public and human rights organizations world-wide. 

A recent investigation  by the Washington Post reported that the IDF uses a facial recognition technology in the West Bank called “Blue Wolf”.  The IDF uses it to build a database of Palestinians based on pictures of them taken in the street, at check points, and in their homes. Alongside such surveillance practices used by security forces for “security” purposes, we are also witnessing a massive incorporation of this technology into civilian spaces such as hospitals, malls, and public spaces. 

Israeli Facial Recognition Technologies

Israeli companies are among the most important artificial intelligence and facial recognition companies worldwide. One such company that has become internationally famous in recent years is Anyvision, which recently changed its name and is now called Oosto. The company, that operates from Holon, made headlines when Microsoft divested from it after reports that the company’s technologies were used on Palestinians in the West Bank and in military checkpoints. According to a 2019 investigative report from NBC, Anyvision provided the Israeli military a technology called Google Ayush (acronym for West Bank Area). This technology is based on cameras that are spread across the West Bank with the purpose of identifying individuals through facial recognition technologies. It was further reported that this same system was used by the Israeli police to identify Palestinians in the streets of East Jerusalem. The report was followed by wide international criticism of the company, and this perhaps is the reason for its name changing. 

Despite claims of severe human rights violations, in the last round of investments which was supervised by Yossi Cohen, the former head of the Mossad (the national intelligence agency of Israel), the company received investments of 235 million dollars. According to the Database of Israeli Military and Security Export (DIMSE), among the many countries worldwide which use Anyvision’s/ Oosto’s facial recognition technology are Hong Kong, Spain, Mexico, Russia, Japan, and the United States. According to the organization Who Profits, the company’s technology is already comprised of 100,000 cameras which are spread across more than 40 countries. 

In 2020, Anyvision/ Oosto founded a subsidiary company called SightX, along with the Israeli weapons company, Rafael. SightX specializes in the development and manufacturing of technologies for military and security purposes, such as drones with facial recognition technologies that can be used inside cities and buildings. Avi Golan, the company’s CEO, said in an interview to Forbes magazine that while the company does not have drones with facial recognition technology yet, these will soon become a reality. Drones are used in protests in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. They are used for surveillance purposes and at times they even drop gas grenades. Equipping them with facial recognition technologies is only a matter of time.

Anyvision/ Oosto is not the only player in the market of facial recognition technologies. Another very successful Israeli company is Corsight AI, which is co-owned by the Israeli company Cortica and the Canadian company AWZ. Much like Anyvision/ Oosta, Corsight also prides itself in the fact that its workers gained their expertise while working in Israeli intelligence and security forces. DIMSE recently published that among the company’s clients are police departments in Brazil and Mexico, two countries known for their extreme police brutality levels. According to DIMSE Corsight itself has stated that the Israeli police is among its clients – a statement that the latter never confirmed. In an interview to AFP, Rob Watts – the company’s CEO – said that the company “has a number of contracts in Israel – governmental contracts and agencies”.

Is the Big Brother Watching Israelis as Well?

We know that this technology is used for the surveillance of civilians, and that it violates human rights across the world, as well as those of Palestinians here. But is it also used against Israelis? The truth is that we just don’t know. Two petitions by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), to the Israeli police and the Israeli Army, have been left unanswered.

A bill promoted by the Israeli police was published in the middle of 2021. The suggested legislation granted the police permission to use any footage caught by cameras in public spaces without the need for a court order. The legislation also included the setting up of a system of cameras which use facial recognition technologies across the country. This would have allowed the police to identify the faces of civilians and compare them with police databases – another step that would harm those minority groups that already suffer from discriminatory treatment by the Israeli police: Ethiopians, Palestinians, and Mizrahi Jews. 

This law, which was promoted by the Israeli police, was so extreme, that even the Israel National Cyber Directorate opposed it, stating that “the law raises concerns about the leaking of data collected by the cameras and might cause harm to innocent civilians, due to the cameras’ low identifying ability”. This is the same police force that uses dubious software to illegally track Israeli and Palestinian civilians and is now seeking to pass a law that would allow it to fully and “legally” use biometric technologies in public spaces. If we choose to take Corsight’s word for it, this is already the reality.

What is the Problem with Facial Recognition?

Facial recognition technology has positive aspects to it – the ability to organize images, to secure computers or other electronic devices, and to function as an aid for the visually impaired. It can also be used to better secure ATMs or prevent frauds and break-ins to online accounts. And of course, the main rationale given by the police – it can be used in the war on terror and crime. But what are the dangers in using this technology?

Often, biometric and facial recognition technologies are discussed in the context of privacy violations. In some ways, this is true. It constitutes a violation of the individual’s right to privacy from the state, from private companies engaged in this sector, and from other agents who might break into and steal biometric databases. But the more important problem with these technologies is their ability to enforce of power. As a society we trust technology and assume it is neutral. But technology is a product of society, and algorithms are created by people. 

Many studies have shown that while biometric signatures work relatively well in identifying white men, they are very bad in identifying non-white men, and are terrible in identifying non-white women. Around the world, people have been wrongly arrested and accused due to errors in facial recognition. One such case is that of Nijeer Parks from New Jersey, who was arrested for stealing a candy bar and an attempt to run over a police officer, due to false facial recognition. He spent 10 days in prison and paid $5,000 for a crime he did not commit due to an error in a technology that had already been proven to be inaccurate, and to regularly misrecognise black people. Last year Parks sued the police and the attorney general for false arrest and the violation of his rights.

Facial recognition technology is racist not only because of its abilities and the way it was developed, but also because of the way it is used. In the United States for example the technology was used to locate immigrant families, while in China a facial recognition technology was developed to identify the faces of Uyghur Chinese, and it is used today as part of the efforts of the Chinese state authorities to track and oppress this ethnic minority group. 

Facial recognition technologies allow security forces to store photos of civilians, while simultaneously almost totally denying those civilians the right to avoid being photographed. The technologies used by intelligence and police forces are not exposed to the public, and the algorithms that are used to operate these technologies are hidden from researchers. It would be tantamount to convicting someone based on DNA sampling, with no one except the company doing the sampling having access to the methods with which it was conducted, or even the information regarding the DNA sequencing which is being tested.

Facial recognition technologies increase the power of the state to identify social and political movements, as well as the members of those groups. So, for example, if the authorities have permission to scan demonstrations, and to then identify everyone who participated in them, people would be deterred from participation in demonstrations or in any form of opposition to the regime, especially in oppressive regimes. Mass social movements like the demonstrations in Tahrir Square that ended Mubarak’s regime, the women’s demonstrations against the criminalization of abortion in Poland, or the demonstrations against evictions of families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah (East Jerusalem), are all based on the knowledge that, apart from a few leaders, the masses can participate in them under the cloak of relative anonymity. Facial recognition technology eliminates this anonymity. 

From “The War on Terror” to the “War on Covid19”

When the Covid19 pandemic broke, weapon and cyber companies, as well as the Mossad and the Israeli Army, were incorporated into civic spaces and medical establishments. Anyvision/ Oosto, for example, placed body-temperature cameras in hospitals across the country, and later also facial recognition cameras, which were used to identify people who refused to wear masks. At Sheba hospital, the system was connected to 600 cameras stationed across the hospital complex, and an alarm went off any time the system recognised a person without a mask. It is unknown whether the hospital staff, patients, or visitors were aware of the use of this technology. Ichilov hospital used a system of the company even before the Covid19 outbreak, using cameras developed by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Freedom of information requests which were submitted to the Ministry of Health, IAI, and the hospital, remain unanswered. 

Corsight also used the pandemic to promote its facial recognition technologies. Shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic, the company boasted that it had developed a new technology that enabled facial recognition even of people wearing masks. That same month five million dollars were invested in the company.

And so, the industry of facial recognition technology used a global health crisis to promote itself, and to allow the state to track and spy on its citizens and their movement. As we have seen through Shin-Beit surveillances of Israeli and Palestinian citizens, as well as through the militarization process of public spaces led by the Israeli police during the Covid19 crisis, we face a real danger of surveillance systems being used under the guise of public health. This danger becomes greater when such actions take place in countries that violate human rights, like Israel. In Israel, the discourse on surveillance during Covid19 takes place under a false dichotomy between “security” on the one hand and “freedom” on the other. One of the biggest concerns of human rights activists is the normalization of such policies. Once a problematic policy (restrictions and surveillance) is implemented on the ground, it becomes normalized, which then allows the state to continue implementing it even after the crisis is over.  

We are at a critical moment. We are facing the rise in use of facial recognition technologies and its acceleration under the guise of the pandemic, while simultaneously witnessing more and more journalistic investigations uncovering the ways these Israeli cyber companies are violating privacy and human rights around the world, as well as here in Israel.

In the middle of January, a Palestinian student of Israeli citizenship was summoned to a questioning in an urgent investigation, after she had attended a small and quiet demonstration in Jaffa, against the planting of trees in the Negev by the JNF. It remains unknown how she was identified by the police. The sole purpose of her investigation was to intimidate and deter her from further activism. How many investigations such as this one could take place based on the decision of algorithms when mass demonstrations are scanned?

The Israeli surveillance industry is unsupervised and is expanding in what seems like an unstoppable pace. Perhaps we are already being identified by the police on our way to demonstrations and political gatherings. We know that this is the case in Gaza and the West Bank. Soon, this identification will also be taking place via drones flying above us in demonstrations, and body cameras worn by police officers. This is not just an invasion of privacy, it is a real threat to our most basic rights. We know of course who will be the first to be harmed by these technologies. Now is the time to go out and protest against this industry, before protesting will become too scary.


Jonathan Hempel is a researcher and human rights activist, he is the co-founder of the Database of Israeli Military & Security Export (DIMSE).


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