IBM says facial recognition technology could be used in harmful ways. Photo: AFP

Israel’s most high-profile facial recognition technology (FRT) startup, Anyvision Interactive Technologies, 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, Haaretz reported.

Anyvision is taking part in two special projects. 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 theoretically shortening the lengthy waits at the border.

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, the Haaretz report said.

At a 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 US$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, the Haaretz report said.

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’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.

“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” the company’s co-founder and chief executive, Eylon 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 [US] 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, the Haaretz report said.

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.”

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