Recent reports of the Israeli army’s facial recognition program and the NSO Group’s hacking of activists highlights the ongoing digital repression meted out against Palestinians.
Israel’s surveillance apparatus appears to be even more dystopian than previously imagined, after The Washington Post reported that its military deployed a facial recognition program to track Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Former Israeli soldiers provided descriptions of the surveillance enterprise to the Post, which involved a smartphone technology called “Blue Wolf” that captured photos of Palestinians’ faces and matched them to an extensive database described by one soldier as the army’s “Facebook for Palestinians.”
Once an image was captured, soldiers’ phones would then flash a specific colour that signifies if that individual should be arrested, detained, or left alone.
Published on Monday, the Post’s investigation found the Israeli army had been adding thousands of images of Palestinians to the database over the last two years, and even held “competitions” that rewarded soldiers for taking the most photos.
The Blue Wolf database is a smaller version of a larger one called “Wolf Pack,” which contains profiles of nearly every Palestinian in the West Bank, including photos, family histories, education and a security rating.
“This situation constitutes a flagrant violation of privacy rights, with soldiers being incentivised to collect as many pictures of Palestinians as possible,” said Saphia Haddad, a Palestinian human rights lawyer based in London.
“Israel maintains comprehensive legislation to protect the right to privacy. Yet, Palestinians continue to be systematically denied their rights as Israeli authorities subject them to intensive surveillance,” Haddad told TRT World.
Additionally, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) also installed face-scanning cameras in Hebron to assist soldiers identify Palestinians at checkpoints even prior to checking their IDs. Meanwhile, CCTV cameras – some of which point into private residences – delivered live monitoring 24/7.
The Post’s report was based on the anonymous testimonies of two former IDF soldiers and four other former soldiers who spoke to the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence.
While the existence of such a program has been acknowledged by the Israeli authorities in the past, the Post indicated this was the first detailed description of the snooping initiative.
“Human rights abuses and violations against Palestinians are common practices for sustaining apartheid,” Laura Albast, Senior Editor of Digital Strategy and Communications at the Institute of Palestinian Studies told TRT World.
“Israel has maintained its outlaw status by turning Palestine into a laboratory for coercive digital and surveillance technologies,” she added.
Haddad similarly echoed that Palestinian territories have served as a “testing ground for biometric surveillance technologies” that “Israeli firms profit from.”
Revelations of the Blue Wolf database came on the heels of a separate disclosure on Monday by non-profit Frontline Defenders in a joint report with Amnesty International and Citizen Lab, which found the phones of six Palestinian human rights activists were hacked by spyware from the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group.
It was the first known instance of Palestinians being targeted by the military-grade Pegasus spyware.
“What is happening to Palestinians today will happen to people everywhere, as Israel exports its cyber-weaponry to governments around the world,” said Albast.
She added this week’s reports by the Post and on the NSO Group’s hacks have shed light on “a surveillance apparatus of dehumanisation and repression against Palestinians that has always existed.”
“Now, we have further confirmation of technologies being used to intimidate Palestinians, who live in fear of unjust persecution for merely existing on a street.”
Intensification of Israel's surveillance state
The Post’s report comes about two years after it was first revealed that the Israeli biometric startup AnyVision was responsible for the facial recognition cameras installed at major checkpoints throughout the West Bank.
In their marketing material, AnyVision claims its cameras could identify any pedestrian, day or night, with or without a face mask, and track their movement across any urban space.
While Israeli police denied the use of AnyVision’s facial recognition technology in East Jerusalem, in December 2020, the municipality acknowledged “some” of the “1,000 cameras installed in Jerusalem” had “analytical capabilities to identify objects,” and another 100 were “connected to servers able to analyze data.”
This July, Israeli police petitioned to expand the use of facial recognition technology across the region and implement a single, centrally managed database.
The pandemic only enabled many of the firms integral to Israel’s military rule over the occupied Palestinian territories to expand under the guise of a public health crisis.
The NSO Group, infamous for contracting with authoritarian regimes to hack political dissidents’ phones, provided location tracking services to the Israeli government. AnyVision installed fever detection cameras across Israeli hospitals. Elbit Systems, whose drones killed over two hundred civilians during Israel’s assault on Gaza in May, manufactured robotics that could surveil isolated patients.
Surveillance of social media and digital communications has intensified as well.
Since its establishment in 2015, Israel’s Cyber Unit has worked with social media platforms to remove, censor, and/or block Palestinian content. (90 percent of the Israeli government’s requests for removals to Facebook were accepted as of 2019).
The most recent example was the mass campaign that targeted Palestinian content on social media in May during the Israeli offensive on Gaza and attempted ethnic cleansing in Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in Jerusalem.
“We have seen a clear issue emerging across all social media platforms when it comes to over-moderating Palestinian content and limiting their voices,” Palestinian digital rights non-profit 7amleh’s director Nadim Nashif told TRT World in an earlier interview.