The Israel Defense Forces is utilizing advanced facial recognition technology to screen Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron, building a digital surveillance database of residents by having soldiers take cellphone photos of them, the Washington Post reported Monday.
According to the report, the surveillance initiative was rolled out over the past two years and is based in part on a smartphone technology called Blue Wolf that captures photos of Hebron residents’ faces and matches them to a mass database.
The Washington Post estimated that several thousand Palestinians had been photographed for the database, with former soldiers describing to the paper how they were incentivized to take as many photos as possible, including of children, based on a reward system.
In addition to Blue Wolf, the report said, the IDF has installed face-scanning cameras at Hebron checkpoints to help soldiers identify Palestinians before they present their ID cards.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable if they used it in the mall in [my hometown], let’s put it that way,” a recently discharged soldier described as having served in an intelligence unit told the paper. “People worry about fingerprinting, but this is that several times over.”
She said that she was motivated to speak out because the Hebron surveillance system was a “total violation of privacy of an entire people.”
Hebron is considered a West Bank powder keg where around 800 Jewish settlers live under hefty Israeli army security, surrounded by around 200,000 Palestinians. The city is home to the site known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, which is revered by both faiths.
The report was based on interviews with soldiers who had previously shared their stories with Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization that gathers and publishes largely anonymous testimonies by former Israeli combat soldiers about alleged human rights violations against Palestinians in the West Bank.
The paper said that while the IDF has acknowledged the existence of the initiative in an online brochure, the report was the first public description of the program’s scope and operations.
In response to questions about the surveillance program, the IDF said that “routine security operations” were “part of the fight against terrorism and the efforts to improve the quality of life for the Palestinian population in [the West Bank].”
“Naturally, we cannot comment on the IDF’s operational capabilities in this context,” the statement added.
Facial recognition technology has come under greater scrutiny from civil rights activists and regulators worldwide, who say the technology is biased and infringes on privacy. The technology, which uses visual images to help computers identify people, is in wide use, from unlocking phones to picking out a suspect’s face at borders or mass gatherings. Since increased use of the technology could help keep crime and terror in check, a global debate is now raging regarding the pros and cons of this technology.
The European Union has proposed a law to limit use of such technology by the police, and it has been banned in several US cities including San Francisco and Boston. Meanwhile, tech firms, including Google’s Alphabet, Microsoft and Amazon, have said they will halt or curb sales of facial recognition technology.
In March last year Microsoft pulled its investment from facial recognition company AnyVision even though the US tech giant couldn’t substantiate claims that the startup’s technology was being used unethically. The firm and the backing it had received from Microsoft’s investment arm had attracted public scrutiny, as the Israeli military reportedly installed face scanners at border crossings where Palestinians enter Israel from the West Bank.
Shortly after the outbreak of the coronavirus, AnyVision installed thermal cameras at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel’s largest hospital, to let officials spot hospital staff with a fever.