Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Israel Uses Controversial Technology To Screen Palestinians In The West Bank


Palestinian workers are getting through some Israeli checkpoints quicker these days, but it's because of a technology that's got some concerned. It's facial recognition. That is debated in the United States. It is used in China, and now the Israeli military is using it to screen Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. NPR's Daniel Estrin went to one crossing where it's in use.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: It's about 5:13 in the morning. This is rush hour for thousands and thousands of Palestinian workers - day laborers. You can see them walking - dozens of them - through this main Israeli military checkpoint to leave the West Bank and to go into Israel to work.

We're watching people stand. They stare at this tiny black camera. It's - green light lights up their face. They're identified and they walk through.

ELISHA HANUKAYEV: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: The new system's called Speed Gate. Israeli defense official Elisha Hanukayev says it lets Palestinians zip through the checkpoint a lot more quickly. One of them we spoke to, construction worker Imad Khalil, says it's better than individually getting checked by soldiers.

IMAD KHALIL: (Through interpreter) Before, we used to spend a good two hours here.

ESTRIN: And what was it like?

KHALIL: (Through interpreter) It was absolute chaos. Today, we arrive and we immediately pass.

ESTRIN: To get a permit to enter Israel, Khalil had his photo taken at a military base.

KHALIL: (Through interpreter) You have to look at the camera and the camera sees your eyes.

ESTRIN: The photo is saved in a biometric database. Then at the checkpoint, when he places his Israeli-issued ID card on a sensor, the camera matches his face to his photo. The Palestinians I met at a checkpoint, like university student Rina Khoury, said it's just a reality.

RINA KHOURY: Israel know all the information about you. When you just stand in front of the camera and the camera takes your eye-print and your face, there is no privacy.

ESTRIN: Within a few months, every checkpoint like this will be equipped with facial recognition technology. The Israeli company AnyVision says it supplies the technology. It says it's like what's used at some airports. A local business newspaper says the company's technology is also being used elsewhere in the West Bank, not just at checkpoints, to monitor potential Palestinian attackers. The military and the company won't confirm that. Microsoft invests in AnyVision and says the company follows its ethics guidelines. Critics argue Israeli companies use the West Bank as a laboratory. Nadeem Nashif is a Palestinian digital rights activist.

NADEEM NASHIF: It's common knowledge that, basically, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in the past, were a laboratory to use Israeli newly developed weapons. And in the past few years, it's more and more about the technologies of surveillance that being tested and later on sold to other countries.

ESTRIN: With facial recognition software, the more images it processes, the better its algorithms get. So the nearly 100,000 Palestinians crossing checkpoints every day could be useful. Jessica Montell of the Israeli human rights group HaMoked says this high-tech infrastructure entrenches the military occupation of the West Bank.

JESSICA MONTELL: This situation, which should be temporary, is looking more and more permanent. It's, I would argue, unsustainable and immoral. And all of the startup technologies around policing and surveillance enable us to maintain what should be an unsustainable situation of military occupation.

ESTRIN: Facial recognition technology is sparking a debate in the U.S. over concerns that law enforcement agencies could track the public and misidentify suspects. A few U.S. cities have banned it. Israel is building a biometric database of its own citizens and using facial recognition at the airport. A defender of the technology says people shouldn't be surprised it's used in the West Bank.

SHABTAI SHOVAL: Israel have enemies. People are trying to kill us every day, and so we might have concerns about human rights and stuff, but privacy is not really an issue in the West Bank. Everybody is monitoring everybody because everybody's afraid from everybody.

ESTRIN: That's Shabtai Shoval of the Israeli company Suspect Detection Systems, which has technology he says detects your emotions.

SHOVAL: Thanks to my company, if you're going to conduct a hate attack, I will catch you only because the temperature in your face change.

ESTRIN: His technology measures thermal responses in faces. It's been used in Russia and one Asian country, but he has trouble selling it to democracies. He says they're slower to adopt what he calls an intrusive technology.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.