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The Palestine Brief: Israel gives notorious West Bank checkpoint 'Orwellian makeover' with face-recognition tech Open in fullscreen

Diana Alghoul

The Palestine Brief: Israel gives notorious West Bank checkpoint 'Orwellian makeover' with face-recognition tech

The Qalandiya Checkpoint is one of the most notorious checkpoints [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 August, 2019

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Israel has flaunted an $85 million upgrade of Qalandia Checkpoint, but is it for Palestinians, or for spying on them?
Last week, one of the most notorious symbols of occupation in the West Bank was given a Black Mirror style makeover by Israel's defence ministry, which poured $85 million to upgrade Qalandia Checkpoint with cutting-edge surveillance technology.

Israeli authorities say the upgrades, which include face-recognition abilities similar to those used by China to monitor its citizens in Xinjiang and elsewhere, are meant to ease the movement of Palestinians.

Rights groups however say they only streamline the restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement while failing to address the occupation itself.

There are also concerns the upgrades are part of a secretive programme to spy on Palestinians and profile them as 'would-be terrorists' even before they commit any act deemed by Israel to be a crime.

Qalandia is the largest Israeli checkpoint in the occupied territories, where Palestinian commuters are forced to go through humiliating inspection as they go about their daily lives. 

Thousands of Palestinians from across the West Bank have to go through the crowded checkpoint to enter Jerusalem or go to work in Israel proper, waiting for hours each time they leave or return.

The Israeli military staffs the checkpoint every day, 24 hours a day. Israeli-run private security companies, often just as hostile towards Palestinians as Israeli soldiers, sometimes take over operating the checkpoint’s surveillance. 

 An overcrowded Qalandia Checkpoint [Getty]

Many Palestinians travelling from Palestinian Authority areas have no choice but to pass through this and other checkpoints.

First, they enter a maze of metal under the unforgiving gaze of heavily armed soldiers and security forces. The waiting area has limited seats, leaving labourers trying to cross into Israel to stand – often stepping on each other’s feet because the space is too cramped.

By the time they arrive to their workplace, they’re already exhausted, irritated and anxious, with the thought of them going through the same process in the same metal cages to return home gnawing at their minds.

The face recognition data will be stored by the Israeli defence ministry, allowing Israel’s agencies that enforce the occupation in the West Bank to identify Palestinians for 'security purposes'

Israel takes mass surveillance in the West Bank to sci-fi levels

With the new high-tech surveillance upgrades, the Israeli ministry claims Palestinians will be able to move through the checkpoints much faster.

The ministry also claims that crossing through Qalandia now takes around 10 minutes, even during the early morning rush hour, and feels like going through an airport terminal.

Upon entering the upgraded checkpoints, Palestinians will now have to use magnetic ID cards with a special scanner and face a smart camera. Then the system will automatically either allowed them in or turn them away, depending on the status of their permit.

But any positive improvement brought by the new upgrades is a distraction from what seems to be really going on, even if we put to one side the fact that Palestinians live under direct military occupation and have to go through a gruelling process to obtain travel permits.

Alarmingly, the face recognition data will be stored by the Israeli defence ministry, allowing Israel’s agencies that enforce the occupation in the West Bank to identify Palestinians for "security purposes". And it seems the checkpoint upgrades is part of a clandestine programme that deploys artificial intelligence and facial recognition to spy on Palestinians deep inside the occupied territories.

Anyvision has a second, more confidential project that includes facial recognition technology elsewhere in the West Bank, not just at border crossings

Digitalising Israeli oppression

Israel's face-recognition technology was made by a homegrown startup called AnyVision Interactive Technologies, which has strong ties to the Israeli military-industrial complex.

The Holon-based company has grown substantially over the past few years, even landing an investment contract with Microsoft in June. Microsoft is currently facing a strong backlash over its ties to Anyvision.

With Microsoft's investment, Anyvision "is providing this technology to an occupying power," Amos Toh, a senior researcher on artificial intelligence at Human Rights Watch, told Forbes. 

"It’s not just privacy risk but a privacy risk associated with a minority group that has suffered repression and persecution for a long time".

The company's face-recognition technology is considered state of the art and can differentiate between races and genders, perfect for countries or occupying powers who want to build a database of civilians, although they claim to deal with 'democratic countries' only.

Not only is this notorious technology being forced on Palestinians in checkpoints under the guise of it speeding up the process of going through them, it’s also being used in a network of Israeli surveillance across the occupied West Bank for an extensive database on who Israel is occupying – person by person.

And Israel not only uses this technology internally to monitor Palestinians but is also trying to export it to other countries – notably ones that too have poor human rights records.

The company’s chief executive Eylon Etshtein recently claimed AnyVision's tech is sold to democratic countries only. But Russia and Hong Kong Beijing-aligned government, states that have an abysmal human rights record, count among AnyVision's clients.

According to a Haaretz report, Anyvision has a second, more confidential project that includes facial recognition technology elsewhere in the West Bank, not just at border crossings. Cameras deep inside the West Bank "try to spot and monitor potential Palestinian assailants", the report said.

The Israeli surveillance operation in the West Bank is undoubtedly among the largest of its kind in the world. It includes monitoring the media, social media and the population as a whole

It's the occupation, stupid

In fact, Anyvision's president, Amir Kain, is the former head of Malmab, the Israeli Defence Ministry’s security department.

And one of Anyvision's advisers, Tamir Pardo, is the former head of the Mossad intelligence service, according to the Israeli newspaper.

"The Israeli surveillance operation in the West Bank is undoubtedly among the largest of its kind in the world. It includes monitoring the media, social media and the population as a whole — and now it turns out also the biometric signature of West Bank Palestinians," wrote Amitai Ziv in Haaretz.

Ultimately, however, watchers and freedom defenders say the issue is not surveillance per se but rather the brutal Israeli occupation and settlement of the West Bank that this technology will only facilitate.

"Normalizing both surveillance & occupation should be a no go," tweeted Matt Suiche, a cybersecurity entrepreneur.

"Just like Ukraine is a test-bed for Russia's cyberweapons, the occupation of Palestine is a test-bed for Israeli surveillance technologies".

Diana Alghoul is a journalist at The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @SuperKnafeh

The Palestine Brief is a new regular feature at The New Arab.

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