By Olivia Solon
Microsoft has invested in a startup that uses facial recognition to surveil Palestinians throughout the West Bank, in spite of the tech giant’s public pledge to avoid using the technology if it encroaches on democratic freedoms.
AnyVision, which is headquartered in apartheid Israel but has offices in the United States, the United Kingdom and Singapore, sells an “advanced tactical surveillance” software system, Better Tomorrow. It lets customers identify individuals and objects in any live camera feed, such as a security camera or a smartphone, and then track targets as they move between different feeds.
According to five sources familiar with the matter, AnyVision’s technology powers a secret military surveillance project throughout the West Bank. One source said the project is nicknamed “Google Ayosh,” where “Ayosh” means occupied Palestinian territories and “Google” denotes the technology’s ability to search for people.
The American technology company Google is not involved in the project, a spokesman said.
The surveillance project was so successful that AnyVision won the country’s top defense prize in 2018. During the presentation, Israel’s defense minister lauded the company — without using its name — for preventing “hundreds of terror attacks” using “large amounts of data.”
Palestinians living in the West Bank do not have Israeli citizenship or voting rights but are subject to movement restrictions and surveillance by the Israeli government.
The Israeli army has installed thousands of cameras and other monitoring devices across the West Bank to monitor the movements of Palestinians and deter terror attacks. Security forces and intelligence agencies also scan social media posts and use algorithms in an effort to predict the likelihood that someone will carry out a lone-wolf attack and arrest them before they do.
The addition of facial recognition technology transforms passive camera surveillance combined with the list of suspects into a much more powerful tool.
“The basic premise of a free society is that you shouldn’t be subject to tracking by the government without suspicion of wrongdoing. You are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Shankar Narayan, technology and liberty project director at the American Civil Liberties Union, said. “The widespread use of face surveillance flips the premise of freedom on its head and you start becoming a society where everyone is tracked no matter what they do all the time.”
“Face recognition is possibly the most perfect tool for complete government control in public spaces, so we need to treat it with extreme caution. It’s hard to see how using it on a captive population [like Palestinians in the West Bank] could comply with Microsoft’s ethical principles,” he added.
When NBC News first approached AnyVision for an interview, CEO Eylon Etshtein denied any knowledge of “Google Ayosh,” threatened to sue NBC News and said that AnyVision was the “most ethical company known to man.” He disputed that the West Bank was “occupied” and questioned the motivation of the NBC News inquiry, suggesting the reporter must have been funded by a Palestinian activist group.
In subsequent written responses to NBC News’ questions and allegations, AnyVision apologized for the outburst and revised its position.
“As a private company we are not in a position to speak on behalf of any country, company or institution,” Etshtein said.
Days later, AnyVision gave a different response: “We are affirmatively denying that AnyVision is involved in any other project beyond what we have already stated [referring to the use of AnyVision’s software at West Bank border checkpoints].”
AnyVision’s technology has also been used by Israeli police to track suspects through the Israeli-controlled streets of East Jerusalem, where 3 of 5 residents are Palestinian.
AnyVision said this did not reflect an “ongoing customer relationship,” referring to the Israeli police.
“Many countries and organizations face a diverse set of threats, whether it is keeping students and teachers safe in schools, facilitating the movement of individuals in and out of everyday buildings, and other situations where innocents could face risk,” the company said in a statement. “Our fundamental mission is to help keep all people safe with a best-in-class technology offering, wherever that threat may originate.”
When AnyVision won the prestigious Israel Defense Prize, awarded to entities found to have “significantly improved the security of the state,” the company wasn’t named in the media announcement because the surveillance project was classified. Employees were instructed not to talk about the award publicly.
However, NBC News has seen a photo of the team accepting the prize, a framed certificate that commends AnyVision for its “technological superiority and direct contribution to the prevention of terror attacks.”