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Face Recognition Lets Palestinians Cross Israeli Checkposts Fast, But Raises Concerns

A Palestinian man uses a biometric gate as he crosses into Israel at the Qalandia crossing in Jerusalem in July. Israel's military has invested tens of millions of dollars to upgrade West Bank crossings and ease entry for Palestinian workers. But critics slam the military's use of facial recognition technology as problematic.
Sebastian Scheiner
A Palestinian man uses a biometric gate as he crosses into Israel at the Qalandia crossing in Jerusalem in July. Israel's military has invested tens of millions of dollars to upgrade West Bank crossings and ease entry for Palestinian workers. But critics slam the military's use of facial recognition technology as problematic.

It takes a few seconds: Palestinians place electronic ID cards on a sensor, stare at the aperture of a small black camera, then walk past panels fanning open to let them through.

Israel is upgrading its West Bank checkpoints with facial recognition technology to verify Palestinians' identities as they cross into Israel. The new system, which began rolling out late last year, eases their passage with shorter wait times — but is drawing criticism about the role the controversial technology plays in Israel's military control over Palestinians.

"Israel knows all the information about you," said Palestinian university student Rina Khoury, as she walked through a checkpoint near Jerusalem this month.

Some U.S. cities have banned the use of facial recognition technology over concerns that law enforcement could track the public — and human biases that creep into the technology could lead to misidentification of suspects. But it's being adopted increasingly by police and airports in the U.S. and around the world — most notably in China, where experts say it is used to track and target its Muslim Uighur minority.

Within an estimated few months, face recognition software will be installed at all West Bank crossings serving Palestinians, Israeli defense officials told NPR. Such screening is not used at separate West Bank checkpoints that Israelis drive through.

Palestinians stand in front of a biometric gate as they enter Israel at the Qalandia crossing in Jerusalem.
Sebastian Scheiner / AP
Palestinians stand in front of a biometric gate as they enter Israel at the Qalandia crossing in Jerusalem.

The military checkpoints are part of a larger system regulating the entry of Palestinians into Israeli areas and even some predominantly Palestinian areas like East Jerusalem. Palestinians need special military permits to pass.

Israel says checkpoints are needed to protect Israelis from potential attackers, following a period of suicide bombings in the early 2000s, while Palestinians consider them a degrading infringement on their freedom of movement and a symbol of Israel's control over their lives.

The facial recognition software used to identify Palestinians at checkpoints was developed by the Israeli tech company AnyVision, a company spokesman confirmed to NPR. TheMarker, an Israeli business newspaper, first identified the company's involvement last month.

AnyVision published a statement committing to ethical use of facial recognition and defending the technology's use at "border crossings," saying it is similar to what is used in some airports to verify travelers' identity. A company spokesman told NPR the statement referred to the West Bank crossings.

An AnyVision presentation says its technology has a 99.9% identification rate and is used at an unnamed airport it called "one of the most secure airports in the world."

TheMarker also reported that AnyVision's technology is being deployed throughout the West Bank in a separate, "much more confidential" program to track "potential Palestinian assailants." AnyVision and Israeli defense officials would not confirm this to NPR.

Microsoft's venture fund, M12, is an investor in AnyVision. "AnyVision agreed to comply with Microsoft's facial recognition principles and that commitment is backed-up by verification mechanisms which we are discussing with them," Microsoft's venture fund said in a statement to NPR.

AnyVision wouldn't identify its clients but said its technology is installed in hundreds of sites in over 40 countries.

"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," AnyVision CEO Eylon Etshtein told TheMarker.

The company said it is now reconsidering a sales manager position it is advertising for Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protesters have been concealing their faces to protect from facial recognition technology used there. "In accordance with our ethical protocols, we're re-evaluating whether the Sales Manager position is a fit at this time," AnyVision said in a statement to NPR, adding that its technology is not used in Hong Kong and the company has no employees there.

AnyVision markets its technology to banks and law enforcement agencies, according to a sales agent of the company based in Europe. It operates in some 40 countries.

Following the Israeli media report about AnyVision's technology in the West Bank, the sales agent said he fielded inquiries from law enforcement agencies in some Scandinavian countries that had been considering purchasing AnyVision's technology and were concerned about how it might be used in the West Bank.

"It doesn't sound good," the agent told NPR, referring to reports on the technology's use in the West Bank and speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. "Clients asked what we do."

TSG IT Advanced Systems, a Tel Aviv-based security technology company, said in an interview with an Israeli defense news website that it had developed technology for Israel's Defense Ministry, using camera footage from West Bank roadways to locate a car according to its license plate, model and color. "We added a facial recognition capability to the system," the company's CEO, Michael Zinderman, was quoted as saying.

Critics argue Israeli tech companies benefit from their country's military involvement in the Palestinian territories.

"The West Bank and Gaza Strip in the past were a laboratory to use the Israeli newly developed weapons," said Nadeem Nashif, a Palestinian digital rights activist. "In the past few years, it's more about the technologies of surveillance that [are] being tested and later on sold to other countries."

With facial recognition technology, the more images it processes, the more its algorithms improve. Processing images of the nearly 100,000 Palestinian day laborers who cross checkpoints daily could prove useful in improving the technology. AnyVision told NPR it does not "use customer information/data."

Palestinians who request permits to enter Israel must first get photographed and fingerprinted at an Israeli military office. Their photos are stored in a biometric database and are connected to electronic ID cards they scan at the checkpoint. Facial recognition software at the checkpoint matches their face to their photos in Israel's biometric database.

Palestinians entering Israel for "humanitarian" purposes — medical treatment, weddings, funerals — are not subjected to the procedure, officials said.

The number of Palestinians in the biometric database is rapidly increasing. Out of the approximately 2.7 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, Israeli defense officials said about 450,000 possess electronic ID cards and have their photos stored in the biometric database, up from a reported 383,000 in May.

Israel is also building a biometric database of its own citizens and uses facial recognition technology at its international airport to identify Israeli travelers at passport control.

The technology, critics say, helps entrench Israel's military occupation of the West Bank, now in its 52nd year. "All of the startup technologies around policing and surveillance enable us to maintain what should be an unsustainable situation of military occupation," said Jessica Montell of the Israeli human rights group HaMoked.

But Israeli officials, and many Palestinian day laborers, praise the new checkpoint system for its efficiency. Dubbed "Speed Gate," it "allows the Palestinian population to cross in very short time spans," said defense official Elisha Hanukayev.

For years, Palestinians had to muscle their way through crowds to be checked by soldiers. "We used to spend a good two hours here ... chaos," said construction worker Imad Khalil at an upgraded checkpoint. "Today we arrive and we immediately pass."

Omer Laviv of Mer Security and Communications Systems, an Israeli company that markets AnyVision technology to law enforcement agencies around the world, said facial recognition technology is a few decades away from being able to locate a suspect by scanning crowds in real time but could be used to match the photo of a specific suspect with recorded footage from a specific location.

"Security concerns override privacy," Laviv said.

Defenders of the technology say its use in the West Bank should not be surprising.

"Israel [has] enemies," said Shabtai Shoval of the Israeli security technology company Suspect Detection Systems. "Privacy ... is not really an issue in the West Bank. Because it's either us or the Palestinian authorities, everybody is monitoring everybody, because everybody's afraid [of] everybody."

The Palestinian Authority's security services monitor Palestinian social media accounts and have allegedly collaborated with the CIA to spy on the phone conversations of senior Palestinian figures, but a Palestinian official told NPR that Palestinian authorities don't have face recognition technologies.

Shoval's company has developed a device that measures thermal responses in faces that detect changes in temperature indicating heightened emotion that could indicate possible suspects seeking to carry out an attack.

The device has been used in a Moscow railway station and a border crossing in an Asian country that Shoval declined to identify. But he said he has struggled to sell it to "democratic countries," as he put it, arguing that Western countries are slower to adapt such intrusive screening technologies.

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Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.