Facial recognition enables “automated apartheid” in Israel, report says

Israel is increasingly relying on facial recognition in the occupied West Bank to track Palestinians and restrict their passage through key checkpoints, a sign of how artificial intelligence-powered surveillance can be used against an ethnic group, according to a new report.

At highly fenced checkpoints in Hebron, Palestinians face facial recognition cameras before they are allowed to cross the border. As their faces are scanned, the software – known as Red Wolf – uses a color-coded system of green, yellow and red to guide soldiers on whether to let the person go, stop them for questioning or arrest them, according to Amnesty’s report International. When the technology can’t identify someone, soldiers train the system by adding their personal information to the database.

Israel has long restricted Palestinian movement, but technological advances are giving the authorities powerful new tools. It’s the latest example of the global proliferation of mass surveillance systems that rely on AI to learn to identify people’s faces from large image banks.

In Hebron and East Jerusalem, the technology is almost entirely focused on the Palestinians, according to Amnesty’s report, marking a new path to automate control of the internal borders that separate Palestinian and Israeli lives. Amnesty called the process “automated apartheid”. Israel has firmly denied operating an apartheid regime.

“These databases and tools only collect data from Palestinians,” says the report, which is based on accounts from former Israeli soldiers and Palestinians living in the monitored areas, as well as field visits to observe the use of the technology in the affected areas.

The Israel Defense Forces, which plays a pivotal role in the occupied West Bank territories, said in a statement that they are “conducting necessary security and intelligence operations while making significant efforts to minimize damage to the routine activities of the Palestinian people.” hold”.

On facial recognition, it added: “Of course, we cannot refer to operational and intelligence capabilities.”

Government use of facial recognition technology to so explicitly target a single ethnic group is rare. In China, companies have developed algorithms that attempt to identify minorities as they walk past the country’s ubiquitous cameras. The Chinese government has also deployed facial recognition checkpoints to control and track the movements of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities.

Israel’s use of facial recognition at checkpoints builds on other surveillance systems deployed in recent years. Since protests in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood against the evictions of Palestinian families in 2021, there has been an increased presence of cameras in the area, which Amnesty says are most likely supporting an Israeli government video surveillance system known for facial recognition, known as Mabat 2000.

Walking through the area, Amnesty researchers reported finding one to two cameras every 4.5 meters. Some were made by Hikvision, the Chinese surveillance camera manufacturer, and others by TKH Security, a Dutch manufacturer.

TKH Security declined to comment. Hikvision did not respond to a request for comment.

Government troops also use their phones’ cameras. According to Breaking the Silence, an organization that supports Amnesty and collects testimonies from Israeli soldiers who have worked in occupied territories, Israeli authorities have a facial recognition app, Blue Wolf, to identify Palestinians.

Soldiers use the app to photograph Palestinians on the street or during house searches, register them in a central database and check if they are wanted for arrest or questioning, according to the 82-page Amnesty report and testimonies from Breaking the Silence . Blue Wolf’s use was previously reported by the Washington Post.

The surveillance is in part an attempt to reduce violence against Israelis. This year Palestinian raiders have killed 19 Israelis. At least 100 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces this year, many in shootouts that broke out during military operations to detain Palestinian gunmen. Israel has occupied the West Bank since 1967, after being captured by Jordan that same year during the Arab-Israeli War

Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist in Hebron, a West Bank city that sees regular violence, said people are under constant surveillance. He, his friends and family are regularly stopped by soldiers to be photographed using the Blue Wolf app. Surveillance cameras line the streets and drones often fly overhead.

Mr Amro said the Israeli military has become so dependent on the automated systems that crossing the checkpoints is halted when there are technical problems.

“Everything is observed. My whole life is being watched. I have no privacy,” he said. “I feel like they follow me everywhere.”

Mr Amro said Palestinians were upset that the surveillance tools never seemed to be used to identify crimes committed by Israeli settlers against Palestinians.

Ori Givati, a former Israeli tank commander who is now advocacy director of Breaking the Silence, said the new surveillance systems were introduced around 2020. The technology has enabled the Israeli government to move towards an automated occupation, he said, subjecting Palestinians to constant oversight and surveillance.

The facial recognition systems are “not just an invasion of privacy, but a powerful control tool”.

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