Report: IDF using facial recognition tools to identify, detain suspects in Gaza

AI tech first deployed to find Israeli hostages is increasingly being used on Palestinians, reports New York Times, with some claiming error-prone tools lead to mistaken arrests

File - IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi meets with female surveillance soldiers at an army base on the Gaza border, March 12, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
File - IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi meets with female surveillance soldiers at an army base on the Gaza border, March 12, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel has arrested hundreds of Palestinian suspects in the Gaza Strip using an experimental, artificial intelligence-powered surveillance apparatus, the New York Times reported on Wednesday, citing unnamed “Israeli intelligence officers, military officials and soldiers.”

The newspaper cited four intelligence officers as saying the program relies on Google Photos and technology — developed by private Israeli company Corsight AI — to identify faces in crowds and low-quality drone footage. According to the paper, three people with knowledge of the program said they were speaking out about it because they considered it a “misuse of time and resources.”

The tool was first used to find Israeli hostages who had been kidnapped to Gaza, but has increasingly been used against potential suspects in Gaza, the newspaper reported, saying that it is employed, among others, by the army’s 8200 cybersecurity unit.

An IDF spokesman told The New York Times that the military “carries out necessary security and intelligence operations, while making significant efforts to minimize harm to the uninvolved population.”

“Naturally, we cannot refer to operational and intelligence capabilities in this context,” he added, declining to comment on activity in Gaza.

The Times interviewed one Gazan, 31-year-old poet Mosab Abu Toha, who said that on November 19, Israeli security forces pulled him out of a crowd marching through a military checkpoint. Abu Toha, who said he has no connection to Hamas, told the Times that he was later blindfolded and interrogated.

Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha speaks to online news show ‘Democracy Now!’ about Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip, January 22, 2024. (Screen capture: Youtube/Democracy Now! used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“I had no idea what was happening or how they could suddenly know my full legal name,” said Abu Toha, who was trying to flee Gaza with his 3-year-old son. He was later taken to an Israeli detention center, where he claims he was beaten for two days before being returned to the Strip without explanation.

Upon his release, Abu Toha told the Times, IDF soldiers told him his interrogation had been a “mistake,” though a military spokesperson said at the time that he had been taken for questioning due to “intelligence indicating a number of interactions between several civilians and terror organizations inside the Gaza Strip.”

The newspaper said three Israeli intelligence officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, later confirmed that Abu Toha, now in Cairo, had been nabbed by face recognition software which found that he was on a list of wanted people.

“I did not know Israel was capturing or recording my face,” Abu Toha told the Times when shown the information, but added that he felt Israel had “been watching us for years from the sky with their drones. They have been watching us gardening and going to schools and kissing our wives. I feel like I have been watched for so long.”

A picture taken from southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 3, 2023, shows Israeli drones flying over the territory during Israeli bombardment amid continuing battles between Israel and Palestinian terror group Hamas. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The war in Gaza has seen unprecedented deployment of AI tools by the IDF to identify targets. The technology has said to have been perfected over previous rounds of fighting in the enclave. A 8200 officer revealed in 2021 that artificial intelligence had been used to pinpoint Hamas commanders, saying hundreds of man-hours had been saved in the process.

A 2023 Amnesty International report had previously detailed the extent of Israel’s use of facial recognition technology in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but the New York Times suggested that since October 7, Israel’s surveillance efforts in Gaza have surpassed those in the other areas.

Soldiers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem scan Palestinians’ faces with smartphone apps and high-resolution cameras, according to the paper, while in the Gaza Strip the IDF has, until the current war, relied on wiretaps, drones and images from social media. In the current war, soldiers entering Gaza have been given cameras to supplement the existing surveillance apparatus there, the New York Times said.

Illustrative: Palestinians walk past an Israeli military guard tower with two robotic guns and surveillance cameras at the Aroub refugee camp in the West Bank, October 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

War broke out on October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israel to kill nearly 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and take 253 hostages, more than half of whom remain in Gaza.

Vowing to dismantle the Palestinian terror group and release the hostages, Israel mounted an unprecedented offensive on the Gaza Strip, destroying about half the enclave’s residences and displacing over a million people. United Nations officials have said “famine is imminent” in the Strip.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 32,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes at least 13,000 Hamas terrorists Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

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