Israeli Face-recognition Tech Used Within Israel Against Law, NBC Investigation Finds

Report confirms past Haaretz findings on AnyVision technology used to track West Bank Palestinians – but if used on Israeli citizens, it could be illegal

Speed Gate at Qalandiyah Checkpoint between the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Emil Salman

The NBC News network has published a major investigative piece about Israeli startup AnyVision Interactive Technologies, which engages in facial recognition, confirming the findings of an investigation by TheMarker last July.

The report by Olivia Solon backs the fact that Israeli security forces were using AnyVision's facial recognition technology in order to identify people wanted for interrogation – beyond the open use of the system at border crossings between the West Bank and Israel. 

Solon writes that five different sources confirmed the use of the system in the territories.

The report also says that AnyVision’s surveillance project also won Israel’s top defense prize in 2018, something that TheMarker in Hebrew has reported.

Additionally, NBC News claims that AnyVision’s system is being used to surveil Palestinians in East Jerusalem. NBC News also published photos and a video clip demonstrating how the system works in the area of the Old City’s Damascus Gate. If the report is correct, it has legal implications. In contrast to the security apparatus in the territories, which is subject to military law, the security services within sovereign Israel are supposed to be subject to Israeli law.

If the report is correct, and AnyVision is monitoring Israeli citizens, the army is forbidden from operating the system and only the police or Shin Bet may do so. Israel Police stated in response: “We do not give details about classified methods of any type, and in any case the Israel Police does not have a facial recognition system in East Jerusalem.” The Justice Ministry and the company have yet to respond to Haaretz requests for comment as of publication.

In response to the report AnyVision said Sunday: "We believe it is our duty to ensure our technology and products are used responsibly to benefit the safety of society. We do not, and will not, tolerate unlawful or unethical usage of our technology. AnyVision’s facial recognition technology is not being used for surveillance in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, nor by Israeli police to track suspects through the Israel-controlled streets of East Jerusalem."

‘Cut-throat culture’

Damascus Gate, Jerusalem, in January, 2019.
Emil Salman

AnyVision insists that it is an ethical company, subject to stringent rules of morality, especially in light of the recent investment it received from Microsoft. However, the NBC News reporter talked with several former company workers who claimed that this was not the case. One former employee was quoted as saying: “Ultimately, I saw no evidence that ethical considerations drove any business decisions.” 

The former employees described a “cut-throat culture” regarding the company’s competitiveness, meaning that the desire to sell to clients, including militaries and governments, overrode questions about the way the technology would be implemented and their objectives.

The report states: “All of the former employees NBC News spoke to said they left because of broken promises over bonuses and other compensation and ethical questions over how the technology was being marketed and used in practice.” Another former employee was quoted as saying that “their definition of the truth is quite a bit more flexible than mine.” 

Another issue arising in the report is the importance of the installation in the West Bank for the company. “AnyVision’s executives considered the West Bank to be a testing ground for its surveillance technology, one former employee said,” Solon writes. In systems based on artificial intelligence, like that of AnyVision, it is important to provide the system with as much information as possible, and in the case of this company it is a database of faces. The report claims that the Palestinian population, without its consent, served to train AnyVision’s system and to increase its accuracy.

A biometric database

AnyVision’s aggressive management was revealed during the course of a long legal process it lost in 2017, after filing a suit against the Israel Sports Betting Board. The board had issued a tender to acquire “a closed- system television” for Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium in order to deal with fan violence.

AnyVision’s petition sought to amend the tender to include “facial recognition technology for the purpose of identifying fans rioting in stadiums, in real time and in retrospect.” The company wrote in the petition: “The petitioner developed groundbreaking technology in the field of automatic facial recognition based on computerized vision and deep learning.

“The use of technology enables turning the cameras that are the object of the tender into smart cameras enabling automatic identification of suspects and their detention. The systems of the petitioner are operational in Israel’s most critical sites. The American Standards Institute determined that AnyVision has the best technology in the world in the field of automatic face recognition.”

AnyVision's facial recognition software.
AnyVision's youtube channel

Later during the suit, the company wrote, “By incorporating AnyVision into the current camera system, it would be possible to identify fans who have been banned from attending. It would be possible to identify people known to the police, and any offender who manages to get past the police and enter the stadium could be identified and caught in real time.”

The Sports Betting Board responded to the court that AnyVision’s response raised concerns that such technology would necessitate creating a biometric database of suspects, writing, “Given the current legal state in Israel, such a biometric database cannot be created, and the National Biometric Database Authority [within the Interior Ministry] is the only body permitted to manage such a database.”

AnyVision stated in response that its system does not use biometric databases, and all that it needs is a picture of the suspect. “The system creates a non-biometric mathematic model,” the company explained.

The Sports Betting Board’s representative responded sharply to this claim, stating, “The petitioner tried to address the claim of the illegality of possessing and maintaining a biometric database by stating that this is not biometric identification but rather identification based on a mathematical model. This argument changes nothing! Either way, it’s comparing data obtained from photos to those within a database. It’s the same method.”

The Sports Betting Board emphasized in its response that biometric data needs to be used “in careful balance vis-a-vis the harm to basic rights, including the right to privacy, as this is sensitive data by nature.”

The court sided with the Sports Betting Board. 

Aside from the Defense Ministry, AnyVision’s customers include the Israel Prisons Service, according to Israeli government budget data available online. The prisons service is spending 45,000 shekels on AnyVision’s services, according to the online data.