As AnyVision probed, Israeli watchdog urges curbs on sales of surveillance tech

Israel Democracy Institute warns tech used to violate human rights brings ‘disgrace’ to Startup Nation, but ex-security official says new technologies are essential to fight terror

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

A Palestinian man uses a biometric gate as he crosses into Israel at the Qalandiya crossing in Jerusalem, July 11, 2019. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)
A Palestinian man uses a biometric gate as he crosses into Israel at the Qalandiya crossing in Jerusalem, July 11, 2019. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

An Israeli democracy watchdog is calling for greater supervision over the sale of Israeli technologies in the wake of a growing number of reports stating that they are being used in the West Bank and globally in violation of human rights.

If the reports are right, “there are more and more Israeli firms that are bringing disgrace to Israel’s reputation,” said Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), who studies the impact of technology on democracy. “The export of technology is not different from the export of weapons – it should be supervised.”

She spoke to The Times of Israel on Sunday after Microsoft announced Friday it was hiring former US attorney general Eric Holder to review its investment in AnyVision, an Israeli facial recognition startup whose technology is reportedly used to scan faces at military checkpoints in the West Bank.

A team headed by Holder will attempt to determine whether AnyVision’s technology applications comply with Microsoft’s ethical principles against using facial recognition for mass surveillance.

Israeli startup AnyVision uses artificial intelligence to recognize faces, bodies and objects for security and other purposes (YouTube screenshot).

Microsoft’s announcement followed reports by Israel’s TheMarker business newspaper and an NBC report claiming that AnyVision’s technology is being used to surveil West Bank Palestinians. The damning NBC report, which also claimed that the software is used by the Israel Police to track residents of East Jerusalem, mostly Palestinian, comes at a time when Microsoft is “positioning itself as a moral leader among technology companies,” its author, Olivia Solon, wrote.

In democratic countries where governments are rolling out biometric passports, ID cards or other surveillance methods, citizens have a right to protest, said Amit Gilutz, a spokesman for the Jerusalem-based anti-occupation group B’Tselem. But when these same tools are rolled out in an occupied territory, then residents don’t have a right to protest and there is minimal demand for transparency.

“It is unacceptable that a whole population of Palestinians becomes an unwilling guinea pig for the profit of an Israeli company, without having any right to appeal,” he said.

“When people are photographed or videoed, you can never know what information tech firms will be able to extract from that data,” warned IDI’s Shwartz Altshuler.

AnyVision has raised a total of $74 million from investors including Microsoft’s venture capital arm, Qualcomm Ventures, LightSpeed Venture Partners, Robert Bosch GmbH, and Eldridge Industries, according to data compiled by Start-Up Nation Central, which tracks the Israeli tech industry.

The startup uses artificial intelligence technology to recognize faces, bodies and objects for security, medical, business and agricultural purposes, among others. Its recognition technology software is used to “authenticate legitimate users and customers, detect targets, track criminals and terrorists, and locate missing persons in a wide range of settings, including banks, educational institutions, correctional facilities, airports, casinos, businesses, and special events,” according to the database of Start-Up Nation Central. Its technology is also used at airports and border crossings, according to an August blog post on AnyVision’s website.

AnyVision told NBC that “its fundamental mission” is to help keep people safe by offering the “best technology,” wherever a threat may originate.

In an emailed message to The Times of Israel, AnyVision said: “AnyVision’s facial recognition technology is not being used for surveillance in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, and AnyVision would not allow its technology to be used for that purpose. Our technology is used at checkpoints into and out of Israel to improve security and for ease of entry and exit for all individuals, similar to Global Entry in the United States.”

Regarding the Microsoft audit, the Israeli startup added: “In recent weeks, there have been a number of inaccurate reports on AnyVision technology. We proactively encouraged Microsoft to conduct an audit of our company… Ethics, privacy and data integrity are the foundational principles upon which our technology and our company were built. We look forward to the audit validating our high standards and continuing to provide a technology for good.”

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. (Courtesy)

“This whole story could blow up in the face of Startup Nation, “said IDI’s Shwartz Altshuler, “because foreign investors will start thinking twice about investing in Israeli startups if they are concerned that these technologies are being misused and infringing on human rights. They could put added scrutiny and added audits on Israeli startups. It could also hurt the willingness of big corporations like Microsoft to cooperate with Israeli startups, because they operate in other countries and are held to high standards.”

The Microsoft audit comes a month after WhatsApp in October said it was suing Israeli technology firm NSO Group, accusing it of using the Facebook-owned messaging service to conduct cyber-espionage on journalists, human rights activists and others. Amnesty International has accused the NSO Group of profiting from its spyware products being “used to intimidate, track, and punish” scores of human rights defenders across the globe, including the Kingdom of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico.

NSO has been adamant that it only licenses its software to governments for “fighting crime and terror” and that it investigates credible allegations of misuse.

“There is nothing intrinsic to technology that requires that it pursue only good ends,” said IDI’s Shwartz Altshuler. Thus, “there is a growing need to include ethical concerns when developing, distributing, implementing and using technology. This is all the more important because in many fields there is no regulation or legislation to provide a clear definition of what may and may not be done. ”

This photo from August 25, 2016, shows the logo of the Israeli NSO Group company on a building in Herzliya, Israel. (AP Photo/Daniella Cheslow)

The Defense Ministry’s Defense Export Controls Agency (DECA) is in charge of approving the export of sensitive security products.

Eitay Mack, an Israeli activist attorney, said in a phone interview that blame lies with the Defense Ministry for allowing these firms to export their technologies. Its policies are obviously problematic, he said, and have the potential of bringing down the whole defense tech and cyber industry.

“Israeli tech firms have been making headlines and causing scandal around the world for a while now, and not for good reasons,” he said. “But it shouldn’t be forgotten that it is the Ministry of Defense that is giving them the permits to export. So, there is obviously a problem with how the ministry makes its decisions, regarding who to give licenses to and for what purpose. If the ministry continues to operate as it does, then it is liable to bring the whole defense tech and cyber industry down, even those which have positive and essential applications.”

In an emailed statement to The Times of Israel, the Defense Ministry said that “the policy of supervising defense exports from the State of Israel to any other country is subject to constant scrutiny and periodic assessments by the senior echelons of the Ministry of Defense in coordination with other relevant parties, and defense export licenses are granted after an individual examination, in accordance with the law.”

“The lists of supervised security equipment are based on international regulatory regimes. The Ministry of Defense oversees the export of cyber systems included in these lists,” the Defense Ministry statement said.

‘No transparancy’

IDI’s Shwartz Altshuler said that due to security considerations, the Defense Ministry does not disclose the details of what rules apply and who is in charge of supervising the export of Israeli technology.

“Because all of this is done by Israel’s Ministry of Defense, it is all veiled in secrecy and there is no transparency in the process,” she said.

The sale of technologies that are being used to infringe human rights can be stopped, she said, “but we need to want it.” In Israel, she said, no one is really interested in stopping it, she said.

“Once, all the graduates of the defense system used to enter the weapons industry. Today they deal in technology,” Shwartz Altshuler said. “Many of the people who are setting up these companies are from the security and defense service, and no one is interested or dares supervise them — because they are making a pack of money and they are all friends with one another. And because we are talking about security services, there is no freedom of information or transparency.”

AnyVision was founded in 2015 by Eylon Etshtein and Prof. Neil Roberston; Tamir Pardo, a former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, serves on its advisory board, according to its website. The founders of many other cybersecurity and technology firms stem from elite IDF intelligence units.

Head of the Mossad Tamir Pardo speaks during a ceremony marking 50 years since the death of Mossad agent Eli Cohen, at the President’s residence on May 18, 2015. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Shwartz Altshuler also warned that technologies that are proven to be successful in fighting terror could easily make their way into the arsenal of police forces to fight crime, with face recognition surveillance sliding into our lives and our daily routines under the umbrella of keeping us safe.

Helping ‘fight terror’

Amid the concerns and criticisms, a former member of the Israeli security community said that abilities conferred by these kinds of new technologies “by definition help fight terror.”

“The fact that people use the same technology for malicious purposes doesn’t make the software bad,” the ex-security official told The Times of Israel. “It is just as a maker of screwdrivers cannot be blamed for someone who then uses it one day to stab and kill someone.”

“If Microsoft has started a review of this Israeli software, is the firm then also going to study how its Word software is used by Hezbollah or Hamas and other terror organizations? These terror organizations use all kinds of Microsoft software, including Word. If the Hezbollah creates its list of targets using Word software, do you think Microsoft will think its software is not legitimate?”

“The Defense Ministry has a whole department to oversee exports, which regulates what can be sold,” the former security official said. “If you publish why you are not allowing the sale of a certain technology, you are giving important information to your opponent, because this could mean that you have no way to defend yourself against this weapon or technology. It is a matter of fine balances. I am not saying that if someone wants to use these technologies maliciously it won’t happen. But we have very many controls in place, and it is not correct to say there are no regulations in place.

“In Israel we protect human rights far more than other countries, but on the other hand we must be careful not to undermine our capabilities, because terrorists have access to the best and newest technologies, without anyone supervising them.”

NSO: Our aim is to ‘save lives’

In a text message a Microsoft spokesperson said that the company “takes these mass surveillance allegations seriously because they would violate our facial recognition principles. AnyVision has confirmed their compliance with our principles, and we are engaging a highly experienced, outside law firm to conduct an audit. We also asked AnyVision to implement a robust board level review and compliance process. AnyVision has agreed to both. If the audit discovers any violation of our principles, we will end our relationship.”

NSO said in a text message: “The sole purpose of NSO’s technology is to help save lives by assisting government intelligence and law enforcement agencies as they investigate terrorism and serious crime,

“Not only has this technology helped save thousands of lives by foiling terrorist attacks, stopping drug and sex trafficking rings, and rescuing kidnapped children, But NSO has also set a model for the industry in and out of Israel by becoming the first company to seek alignment with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. NSO’s governance framework sets the highest standards in the cyber intelligence industry, embedding human rights’ due diligence into everything we do.”

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