Israel escalates surveillance of Palestinians with facial recognition program in West Bank
HEBRON, West Bank — The Israeli military has been conducting a broad surveillance effort in the occupied West Bank to monitor Palestinians by integrating facial recognition with a growing network of cameras and smartphones, according to descriptions of the program by recent Israeli soldiers.
The surveillance initiative, rolled out over the past two years, involves in part a smartphone technology called Blue Wolf that captures photos of Palestinians’ faces and matches them to a database of images so extensive that one former soldier described it as the army’s secret “Facebook for Palestinians.” The phone app flashes in different colors to alert soldiers if a person is to be detained, arrested or left alone.
To build the database used by Blue Wolf, soldiers competed last year in photographing Palestinians, including children and the elderly, with prizes for the most pictures collected by each unit. The total number of people photographed is unclear but, at a minimum, ran well into the thousands.
The surveillance program was described in interviews conducted by The Post with two former Israeli soldiers and in separate accounts that they and four other recently discharged soldiers gave to the Israeli advocacy group Breaking the Silence and were later shared with The Post. Much of the program has not been previously reported. While the Israeli military has acknowledged the existence of the initiative in an online brochure, the interviews with former soldiers offer the first public description of the program’s scope and operations.
In addition to Blue Wolf, the Israeli military has installed face-scanning cameras in the divided city of Hebron to help soldiers at checkpoints identify Palestinians even before they present their I.D. cards. A wider network of closed-circuit television cameras, dubbed “Hebron Smart City,” provides real-time monitoring of the city’s population and, one former soldier said, can sometimes see into private homes.
The former soldiers who were interviewed for this article and who spoke with Breaking the Silence, an advocacy group composed of Israeli army veterans that opposes the occupation, discussed the surveillance program on the condition of anonymity for fear of social and professional repercussions. The group says it plans to publish its research.
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They said they were told by the military that the efforts were a powerful augmentation of its capabilities to defend Israel against terrorists. But the program also demonstrates how surveillance technologies that are hotly debated in Western democracies are already being used behind the scenes in places where people have fewer freedoms.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable if they used it in the mall in [my hometown], let’s put it that way,” said a recently discharged Israeli soldier who served in an intelligence unit. “People worry about fingerprinting, but this is that several times over.” She told The Post that she was motivated to speak out because the surveillance system in Hebron was a “total violation of privacy of an entire people.”
Israel’s use of surveillance and facial-recognition appear to be among the most elaborate deployments of such technology by a country seeking to control a subject population, according to experts with the digital civil rights organization AccessNow.
In response to questions about the surveillance program, the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, said that “routine security operations” were “part of the fight against terrorism and the efforts to improve the quality of life for the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria.” (Judea and Samaria is the official Israeli name for the West Bank.)
“Naturally, we cannot comment on the IDF’s operational capabilities in this context,” the statement added.
Official use of facial recognition technology has been banned by at least a dozen U.S. cities, including Boston and San Francisco, according to the advocacy group the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. And this month the European Parliament called for a ban on police use of facial recognition in public places.
But a study this summer by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 20 federal agencies said they use facial recognition systems, with six law enforcement agencies reporting that the technology helped identify people suspected of law-breaking during civil unrest. And the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a trade group that represents technology companies, took issue with the proposed European ban, saying it would undermine efforts by law enforcement to “effectively respond to crime and terrorism.”
Inside Israel, a proposal by law enforcement officials to introduce facial recognition cameras in public spaces has drawn substantial opposition, and the government agency in charge of protecting privacy has come out against the proposal. But Israel applies different standards in the occupied territories.
“While developed countries around the world impose restrictions on photography, facial recognition and surveillance, the situation described [in Hebron] constitutes a severe violation of basic rights, such as the right to privacy, as soldiers are incentivized to collect as many photos of Palestinian men, women, and children as possible in a sort of competition,” said Roni Pelli, a lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, after being told about the surveillance effort. She said the “military must immediately desist.”
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Yaser Abu Markhyah, a 49-year-old Palestinian father of four, said his family has lived in Hebron for five generations and has learned to cope with checkpoints, restrictions on movement and frequent questioning by soldiers after Israel captured the city during the Six-Day War in 1967. But, more recently, he said, surveillance has been stripping people of the last vestiges of their privacy.
“We no longer feel comfortable socializing because cameras are always filming us,” said Abu Markhyah. He said he no longer lets his children play outside in front of the house, and relatives who live in less-monitored neighborhoods avoid visiting him.
Hebron has long been a flashpoint for violence, with an enclave of hardline, heavily protected Israeli settlers near the Old City surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and security divided between the Israeli military and the Palestinian administration.
In his quarter of Hebron, close to the Cave of the Patriarchs, a site that is sacred to Muslims and Jews alike, surveillance cameras have been mounted about every 300 feet, including on the roofs of homes. And he said the real-time monitoring appears to be increasing. A few months ago, he said, his 6-year-old daughter dropped a teaspoon from the family’s roof deck, and although the street seemed empty, soldiers came to his home soon after and said he was going to be cited for throwing stones.
Issa Amro, a neighbor and activist who runs the group Friends of Hebron, pointed to several empty houses on his block. He said Palestinian families had moved out because of restrictions and surveillance.
“They want to make our lives so hard so that we will just leave on our own, so more settlers can move in,” Amro said.
“The cameras,” he said, “only have one eye — to see Palestinians. From the moment you leave your house to the moment you get home, you are on camera.”
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The Blue Wolf initiative combines a smartphone app with a database of personal information accessible via mobile devices, according to six former soldiers who were interviewed by The Post and Breaking the Silence.
One of them told The Post that this database is a pared-down version of another, vast database, called Wolf Pack, which contains profiles of virtually every Palestinian in the West Bank, including photographs of the individuals, their family histories, education and a security rating for each person. This recent soldier was personally familiar with Wolf Pack, which is accessible only on desktop computers in more secure environments. (While this former soldier described the data base as “Facebook for Palestinians,” it is not connected to Facebook.)
Another former soldier told The Post that his unit, which patrolled the streets of Hebron in 2020, was tasked with collecting as many photographs of Palestinians as possible in a given week using an old army-issued smartphone, taking the pictures during daily missions that often lasted eight hours. The soldiers uploaded the photos via the Blue Wolf app installed on the phones.
This former soldier said Palestinian children tended to pose for the photographs, while elderly people — and particularly older women - often would resist. He described the experience of forcing people to be photographed against their will as traumatic for him.
The photos taken by each unit would number in the hundreds each week, with one former soldier saying the unit was expected to take at least 1,500. Army units across the West Bank would compete for prizes, such as a night off, given to those who took the most photographs, former soldiers said.
Often, when a soldier takes someone’s photograph, the app registers a match for an existing profile in the Blue Wolf system. The app then flashes yellow, red or green to indicate whether the person should be detained, arrested immediately or allowed to pass, according to five soldiers and a screenshot of the system obtained by The Post.
The big push to build out the Blue Wolf database with images has slowed in recent months, but troops continue to use Blue Wolf to identify Palestinians, one former soldier said.
A separate smartphone app, called White Wolf, has been developed for use by Jewish settlers in the West Bank, a former soldier told Breaking the Silence. Although settlers are not allowed detain people, security volunteers can use White Wolf to scan a Palestinian’s identification card before that person enters a settlement, for example, to work in construction. The military in 2019 acknowledged existence of White Wolf in a right-wing Israeli publication.
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The Israeli military, in the only known instance, referred to the Blue Wolf technology in June in an online brochure inviting soldiers to be part of “a new platoon” that “will turn you into a Blue Wolf.” The brochure said that the “advanced technology” featured “smart cameras with sophisticated analytics” and “censors that can detect and alert suspicious activity in real-time and the movement of wanted people.”
The military also has mentioned “Hebron Smart City” in a 2020 article on the army’s website. The article, which showed a group of female soldiers called “scouts” in front of computer monitors and wearing virtual-reality goggles, described the initiative as a “major milestone” and a “breakthrough” technology for security in the West Bank. The article said “a new system of cameras and radars had been installed throughout the city” that can document “everything that happens around it” and “recognize any movement or unfamiliar noise.”
In 2019, Microsoft invested in an Israeli facial recognition startup called AnyVision, which NBC and the Israeli business publication the Marker reported was working with the army to build a network of smart security cameras using face-scanning technology throughout the West Bank. (Microsoft said it pulled out of its investment in AnyVision during fighting in May between Israel and the Hamas militant group in Gaza.)
Also in 2019, the Israeli military announced the introduction of a public facial-recognition program, powered by AnyVision, at major checkpoints where Palestinians cross into Israel from the West Bank. The program uses kiosks to scan IDs and faces, similar to airport kiosks used at airports to screen travelers entering the United States. The Israeli system is used to check whether a Palestinian has a permit to enter Israel, for example to work or to visit relatives, and to keep track of who is entering the country, according to news reports. This check is obligatory for Palestinians, as is the check at American airports for foreigners.
Unlike the border checks, the monitoring in Hebron is happening in a Palestinian city without notification to the local populace, according to one former soldier who was involved in the program and four Palestinian residents. These checkpoint cameras also can recognize vehicles, even without registering license plates, and match them with their owners, the former soldier told The Post.
In addition to privacy concerns, one of the main reasons that facial recognition surveillance has been restricted in some other countries is that many of these systems have exhibited widely varying accuracy, with individuals being put in jeopardy by being misidentified.
The Israeli military did not comment on concerns raised about the use of facial-recognition technology.
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has said that studies showing that the technology is inaccurate have been overblown. In objecting to the proposed European ban, the group said time would be better spent developing safeguards for the appropriate use of the technology by law enforcement and performance standards for facial recognition systems used by the government.
In the West Bank, however, this technology is merely “another instrument of oppression and subjugation of the Palestinian people,” said Avner Gvaryahu, executive director of Breaking the Silence. “Whilst surveillance and privacy are at the forefront of the global public discourse, we see here another disgraceful assumption by the Israeli government and military that when it comes to Palestinians, basic human rights are simply irrelevant.”