This Israeli Face-recognition Startup Is Secretly Tracking Palestinians

This Israeli Face-recognition Startup Is Secretly Tracking Palestinians

Anyvision Interactive Technologies is one of Israel’s most curious startups. It has shown extraordinary growth, and its technology is being used by the army to monitor West Bank Palestinians at checkpoints on the way into Israel — while using a network of cameras deep inside the West Bank. The company’s co-founder and chief executive, Eylon Etshtein, told TheMarker that his company is sensitive to racial and gender bias and only sells to democracies.

Anyvision is Israel’s most high-profile biometric recognition firm, particularly in facial recognition. The company notes that its software can be hooked up to cameras of all kinds and be installed and used immediately, requiring little computing capacity.

TheMarker has learned that Anyvision is taking part in two special projects in assisting the Israeli army in the West Bank. One involves a system that it has installed at army checkpoints that thousands of Palestinians pass through each day on their way to work from the West Bank. The product lets the army quickly identify whether the person passing through has an Israeli work permit, thereby shortening the wait at the border.

The army said in a statement in February: “As part of a wide-ranging program to upgrade the crossings in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] through the addition of technology, 27 biometric crossings have been established and new identification and inspection stations have been added. The inspection procedure at the crossings has become more efficient and significantly faster.”

Anyvision’s second project is much more confidential and 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.

At TheMarker’s most recent Technovation conference in June, Yaniv Cohen, Anyvision’s accountant, described how the facial recognition firm built its first prototype in 2014 and launched its initial product commercially three years later, working with government clients, security agencies and foreign corporations. In 2018, Anyvision raised $28 million (led by the German company Bosch) and increased revenues sixfold.
“The company operates in the field of picture processing, and its power is in its technology,” Cohen said. “Its people have developed new generations of the product at an extraordinary pace, which has let them attract customers and enter new markets, helping them quickly raise funds and race ahead.”

Anyvision’s president, Amir Kain, is the former head of Malmab, the Defense Ministry’s security department. One of Anyvision’s advisers is Tamir Pardo, the former head of the Mossad intelligence service.

Pinpoint accuracy

According to a presentation on its website, Anyvision has a staff of 240 including 30 Ph.D.s and is based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It says the company operates in 43 countries and at more than 350 locations such as stadiums, airports and casinos.

It says its products are being used at some of the most well-protected airports in the world and claims a 99.9% accuracy rate for its facial recognition technology compared with 70% among competing systems. It says that on average, it suffers less than one false reading a day. Anyvision was recently named a Cool Vendor by Gartner, the research and consulting firm that honors breakthrough technology developed by startups.

In the middle of last month, Anyvision raised $31 million from Microsoft’s M12 venture capital fund as well as investment fund DFJ Growth and Israeli investor Eyal Ofer’s O.G. Tech. The startup has raised $74 million in first-round funding at an estimated company valuation of $500 million. Firms that have already invested include Qualcomm and Lightspeed Venture Partners.

The company sells three products based on its technology. The first, Better Tomorrow, identifies suspicious behavior; it’s the kind used at airports and casinos. Its SesaMe product uses facial recognition technology on smartphones; for example, Bank Hapoalim employs the system to let users open bank accounts through its app. The third product, Insights, can tell supermarket chains what shoppers are looking at in the aisles.

“On a commercial level, industry has been trying for 15 years to develop facial and body recognition and computerized vision, but it didn’t come to fruition,” Etshtein, the co-founder and chief executive, told TheMarker. “We have the technology to make this leap, so we’re attracting the market’s attention.”

The controversy over facial recognition

Anyvision’s involvement in the West Bank is being revealed amid a lively debate around the world on the use of biometric technology, especially facial recognition. About a month ago, San Francisco became the first American city to outlaw facial recognition technology. And camera maker Axon recently decided to eliminate its products’ facial recognition capacity, based on the recommendations of an ethics committee that it had formed.

“Regarding the global trend, I can say that a few newspapers have adopted a very left-wing approach. I wouldn’t say that it’s representative. We did a market study about the American population and found that the rate of support for facial recognition technology for use in security is off the charts,” Etshtein said.

“We support regulating the field so that the technology won’t be biased based on gender or race, and also due to privacy issues. We’re very sensitive to such matters, so of all the companies in the world, Microsoft decided to go with us. We’re also working in the [U.S.] Senate, through lobbyists, to explain why artificial intelligence is a good thing,” he added.

“No one in the world does mass surveillance other than China, and I don’t operate in China. I also don’t sell in Africa or Russia. We only sell systems to democratic countries with proper governments. For example, you’ll find statements by the mayor of Nice [France], who says he can finally locate a child who has gotten lost, an old person with dementia or someone with malicious intentions.”

Presented with the argument that the West Bank isn’t governed democratically and that mass surveillance is being carried out there, Etshtein responded: “It’s really a huge dilemma, but I’m not the guy to ask this. Ultimately we’re a technology company that does the maximum so that its technology isn’t misused.”

The American Civil Liberties Union recently published a major study — “The Dawn of Robot Surveillance” — on crowd monitoring using video technology and its impact on civil rights.

Also, a high-profile information security researcher, Bruce Schneir, wrote: “It used to be that surveillance cameras were passive. Maybe they just recorded, and no one looked at the video unless they needed to. Maybe a bored guard watched a dozen different screens, scanning for something interesting. In either case, the video was only stored for a few days because storage was expensive.”

“Increasingly, none of that is true,” he added. “Recent developments in video analytics — fueled by artificial intelligence techniques like machine learning — enable computers to watch and understand surveillance videos with human-like discernment. Identification technologies make it easier to automatically figure out who is in the videos. And finally, the cameras themselves have become cheaper, more ubiquitous, and much better; cameras mounted on drones can effectively watch an entire city. Computers can watch all the video without human issues like distraction, fatigue, training, or needing to be paid. The result is a level of surveillance that was impossible just a few years ago.”

Quoting from the ACLU report, Schneir noted that they “won’t just record us, but will also make judgments about us based on their understanding of our actions, emotions, skin color, clothing, voice, and more.”

Last month a number of civil rights groups including the ACLU sent a letter to Google, Amazon and Microsoft asking that they not provide such technology to the U.S. government. “We are at a crossroads with face surveillance, and the choices made by these companies now will determine whether the next generation will have to fear being tracked by the government for attending a protest, going to their place of worship, or simply living their lives,” Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director for the ACLU of California, wrote in the letter.

In October, Google announced that it was withdrawing from bidding on a $10 billion contract to develop facial recognition technology for U.S. military drones. The company dropped out following protests by its employees over the use of the technology. Google then said it had found that the technology could be used in ways that violate its ethics guidelines.

A tool for good?

Among Anyvision’s investors, Microsoft has attracted particular attention. According to Bloomberg, the U.S. company’s investment had been delayed so that Anyvision could ensure that its technology met Microsoft’s ethics standards.

Bloomberg quoted Anyvision’s chief commercial officer, Max Constant, as saying: “They’re asking the question now of how do we leverage this in a way so that we can actually make sure that this is a tool for good.”

What are Microsoft’s guidelines regarding tools for good? Israel’s military control over the West Bank, parts of which are under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, is opposed by the international community and is seen by many people around the world as a violation of human rights. The U.S. group Freedom House describes the West Bank as “not free,” with a rating of 25 out of 100 points.

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. This monitoring op is now competing with the Chinese regime, that intensively uses facial recognition and monitors its civilians’ activity on social networks.