search

US firms said using Israeli tech for controversial facial recognition

AnyVision system touted as improving security and preventing crime, but social rights activists say practice infringes on privacy, could hurt marginalized groups

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

An Israeli company that makes facial recognition technology has gained several big-name clients in the US, even as rights groups increasingly raise concerns over the use of such surveillance methods, Reuters reported Wednesday.

AnyVision, a Holon-based startup founded in 2015 by Neil Robertson and Eylon Ethstein, uses artificial intelligence technology to recognize faces, bodies and objects for security, medical and business purposes, among others.

Facial recognition technology as a whole has come under fire by civil liberties activists who say the tools are biased against people of color and infringe upon citizens’ privacy.

The technology 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 its pros and cons.

Last week 25 social justice groups published an open letter calling on governments to ban corporate use of facial recognition.

“Private use of facial recognition by corporations, institutions and even individuals poses just as much of a threat to marginalized communities as government use,” the letter declared.

Among AnyVision’s clients, according to the Reuters report, are Los Angeles hospital Cedars-Sinai, oil giant BP, Macy’s, home improvement chain Menards, Mercedes-Benz, facilities of the Houston Texans and Golden State Warriors sports teams, casino operators MGM Resorts International and Cherokee Nation Entertainment. The report cited anonymous sources for some of the information on clients.

Negotiations for deals with Amazon and airports in Dallas and San Francisco have so far not led to purchases.

Most of the companies declined to comment to Reuters on their security arrangements, or even to confirm that they use AnyVision.

Adam Devine, chief marketing officer at Israel’s facial recognition startup AnyVision (Courtesy)

AnyVision’s chief executive officer Avi Golan told Reuters the company has worked in a variety of sectors from banking and retail to sports and energy firms where, he said, the technology is used to improve safety and prevent crime.

Golan agreed that some regulation is needed to prevent misuse of the capabilities that such technology offers, but said that “blanket bans are irresponsible.”

“I am a bold advocate for regulation of facial recognition,” Golan said. “There’s a potential for abuse of this technology both in terms of bias and privacy.”

In an interview with The Times of Israel last year, Adam Devine, chief marketing officer at AnyVision, said governments should allow only specialized providers — who know how to protect privacy and prevent bias — to sell facial recognition software. Nor should they be sold to organizations that are not going to use them correctly, he said.

“But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he urged.

Macy’s told Reuters it uses AnyVision “in a small subset of stores with high incidences of organized retail theft and repeat offenders.”

Sources said the system was installed at Macy’s New York Herald Square in 2019 to combat shoplifting and has since been added to 15 other stores in New York. Were it not for the virus pandemic, it would have been installed in another 15 stores across the US.

Two sources told Reuters that Menards has a deal to implement AnyVision at 290 stores. An AnyVision promotional video, apparently referring to Menards, says the chain saved over $5 million in 2019 because of the system and stopped 54 percent more threats.

Mercedes-Benz said it uses the system to authenticate hundreds of people entering and exiting its offices in Fort Worth Texas.

Ted Whiting of MGM told Reuters the software was being used to detect casino visitors who are not wearing face masks and to help spot those accused of violence.

In 2018, Israeli business newspaper The Marker reported that the IDF uses technology provided by AnyVision at West Bank checkpoints, and in cameras dotting the Palestinian Authority. The cameras and database were being used to identify and track potential Palestinian assailants, the report said. Following the report, a separate MSNBC report queried why Microsoft, which at the time was invested in the company, was funding an Israeli firm that helps surveil West Bank Palestinians.

Palestinians stand in front of a biometric gate as they enter Israel at the Qalandiya crossing in Jerusalem, July 11, 2019. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

The coverage led Microsoft to probe the matter, and in March 2019 the US tech giant said it was pulling out of its investment in AnyVision, even though its own investigation couldn’t substantiate claims that the startup’s technology was being used unethically.

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.

The facial recognition software can reportedly identify “in seconds” anyone who came into contact with an infected staffer and allows officials to determine precisely who should go into isolation.

Though it announced last September it had raised $43 million in funding, AnyVision also suffered setbacks over the past year with sources saying it fired half its staff as clients cut budgets due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, according to Reuters.

read more:
comments
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed