Israel reportedly using facial recognition and Google Photos to conduct mass surveillance in Gaza

Israel reportedly using facial recognition and Google Photos to conduct mass surveillance in Gaza

Israel is deploying a mass facial recognition program in Gaza, conducting surveillance of Palestinians without their knowledge or consent, according to a new report from The New York Times.

As the publisher reports, speaking to Israeli intelligence officers, military officials, and soldiers, the facial recognition program is run by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)’s military Unit 8200, which is “collecting and cataloging the faces of Palestinians”. The program reportedly uses technology from Corsight, an Israel facial recognition company that provides services for government agencies, law enforcement, and corporations, alongside Google Photos.

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The Times says this mass surveillance is being rolled out in Israel to identify members of Hamas, following the Oct. 7 attacks. The Israeli military also set up checkpoints — along roads Palestinians are using to flee the war — with facial recognition cameras, and soldiers have used security camera footage, videos uploaded by Hamas on social media, and also asked Palestinian prisoners to identify anyone affiliated with Hamas.

Corsight’s technology, the Times reports, has mistakenly identified several people including Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha as he was trying to leave Gaza amid the war. The program is reported to have flagged Abu Toha as a wanted individual, leading to his being stopped at a military checkpoint, after which Israeli soldiers held him in a detention facility where he was beaten and interrogated for two days. Israel intelligence officers told the Times that their guidelines for who to stop at these checkpoints were “intentionally broad”.

Google Photos has reportedly been used in tandem with Corsight’s technology, with intelligence officers uploading photographs of “known persons” and using the platform’s search function to identify people. An officer told the Times that the feature is effective in identifying someone even when a small portion of their face is visible.

The official union of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, condemned Google’s role in the surveillance of Palestinians following the Times’ investigation. “Google Photos should not be available for this,” read the union’s post on X. “This is not what we built these tools for.”

Corsight, which is headquartered in Tel Aviv, claims that less than 50 percent of a person’s face needs to be visible in order to correctly identify an individual. In October, Forbes reported that Corsight was used by hospitals in Israel to identify patients after attacks. The company provided its technology for free at the time. Robert Watts, president and chief strategy officer of Corsight, posted about the ongoing war on LinkedIn, in one instance, writing, “I support Israel to expel the threat of terror.”

Mashable has reached out to Google and Corsight. Corsight declined to comment when contacted.

Israel has previously used facial recognition in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with an Amnesty International report from May 2023 outlining that the technology is used “to consolidate existing practices of discriminatory policing, segregation, and curbing freedom of movement, violating Palestinians’ basic rights.”

Three of the people who spoke to the Times, on the condition of anonymity, said they were doing so out of concern that the facial recognition program was a misuse of time and resources.

The ongoing war has resulted in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Gaza, with over 32,000 Palestinians killed since Israel launched its military offensive. On March 26, the United Nations called for an immediate ceasefire in the region for the first time since the war began.

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