How Israel uses facial recognition to monitor West Bank Palestinians

·4-min read

Former Israeli soldiers and the NGO Breaking the Silence say the Israeli military has created a vast database of photos and information about Palestinians living in the West Bank, the Washington Post reported Monday.

"I once warned that the architecture of oppression was near. It has arrived,” NSA leaker Edward Snowden tweeted in response to the Post’s description of the Israeli military's technological surveillance efforts in the West Bank on November 8.

The article describes a vast facial recognition program and database that one former Israeli soldier described as a secret “Facebook for Palestinians” that is being used to conduct broad surveillance efforts in the occupied West Bank. Additional measures have been deployed in the divided city of Hebron.

'Take as many pictures as possible'

The initiative began nearly two years ago and involves, in part, smartphones equipped with a facial recognition program called "Blue Wolf" that matches images of Palestinian’s faces with a vast database. These phones were distributed to soldiers in Hebron and throughout the West Bank, according to accounts provided to Breaking the Silence, an Israeli NGO that works with ex-soldiers to document the Israeli army's abuses of Palestinians.

As part of the program, soldiers took photos of Palestinians, sometimes forcibly, in order to feed a database that grew into the thousands of faces linked to names, addresses and other information.

Children, the elderly, anyone could have their picture taken. "We don’t need suspicious signs in order to take photos, the point was to take photos,” a former sergeant stationed in Hebron in 2020 said in an account published by Breaking the Silence. “There was even like a bit of competition.”

Units that took the most photos would win prizes, such as a night off, the Washington Post reported.

The Blue Wolf database can be accessed in real time by Israeli soldiers during identity checks in the West Bank. "We receive color-coded indications for each individual. Yellow means that the person must be detained, red means that he must be arrested and green means that he can be let through," a former soldier told Breaking the Silence.

To obtain this information, "they simply scan the small barcode that's on the mumarnat smartcard [a card containing a Palestinian civilian's biometric information]. And if there’s just the ID, and [the person doesn't have a] mumarnat, then they scan the face,” a former IDF lieutenant said in another account to Breaking the Silence.

In addition to Blue Wolf, the Israeli military has installed a network of surveillance cameras, dubbed "Hebron Smart City". These cameras make it possible for soldiers at checkpoints to "identify Palestinians even before they present their ID cards," the Washington Post reported.

The "Hebron Smart City" program – started last year – had until now been described simply as a traditional grid of surveillance cameras, used to help the IDF combat "terrorist risk". In an article in the free Israeli daily Israel Hayom published in October 2020, the network is described by the army as "a set of sensors capable of identifying in real time what is out of the ordinary and quickly providing the soldiers on the ground with all the relevant information about what is happening."

A little bit of Big Brother

Blue Wolf and the Hebron Smart City initiatives, as described in the Washington Post, seem like an Israeli version of the Big Brother-style monitoring China is known to employ. Beijing has been heavily criticized for its use of facial recognition to control the Muslim Uighur minority. With its "made in Israel" system, Tel Aviv "is building a little corner of China in the West Bank," Haggai Matar, an Israeli journalist known for his hostile stance against the presence of the Israeli army in the West Bank, said on Twitter.

The Israeli military is not the only group to benefit from the information contained in the Blue Wolf database, according to the former soldiers. A separate smartphone app, called "White Wolf," is available to Jewish settlers in the West Bank and allows them to search the database by scanning the IDs of Palestinians who come to work in Jewish settlements. "It's a watered-down version with much less data provided [to settlers]. They only receive information about work permits and possible movement restrictions," a former IDF lieutenant told Breaking the Silence.

When contacted by FRANCE 24, the Israeli army did not deny the existence of Blue Wolf, noting simply that it was "obviously impossible to give details on the operational capabilities of the Israeli Defense Forces".

The use of facial recognition for security purposes is sensitive in Israel as elsewhere. A law to introduce facial recognition-enhanced cameras throughout Israel, introduced in July 2021, has met with strong opposition from privacy groups. They argue that this is not only a violation of privacy, but that the accuracy of facial recognition technology is still far from satisfactory.

These criticisms helped block – at least temporarily – the adoption of the law in Israel, but they did not prevent the IDF from deploying the technology in the West Bank "without the knowledge of the population", as the Washington Post noted.

For Breaking the Silence’s Executive Director Avner Gvaryahu, this is "another disgraceful assumption by the Israeli government and military that when it comes to Palestinians, basic human rights are simply irrelevant.”

This article has been translated from the original in French

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