Human Rights Groups Slam Microsoft for Investing in Israeli Face-recognition Company

Activists point to 'problematic' political context of Microsoft's investment in startup company AnyVision, which sells the Israeli army technology used in the West Bank

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

Microsoft is being taken to task by human rights groups for investing in an Israeli startup whose face-recognition technology is used in the West Bank, Forbes magazine reported over the weekend. 

As reported by TheMarker last month AnyVision, whose biometric recognition technology is used by Israeli security forces, won $74 million in funding by a group of investors that included the U.S. technology giant Microsoft in June.

Amos Toh, a senior researcher on artificial intelligence at Human Rights Watch, told Forbes that the use of such technology “in a very fraught political context, could be problematic,” referring to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

>> Read more: This Israeli face-recognition startup is secretly tracking Palestinians ■ By providing face-recognition software, Israeli high-tech is on the wrong side of justice | Analysis 

“I think it’s incumbent on Microsoft to really look at what that means for the human rights risk associated with the investment in a company that’s providing this technology to an occupying power. It’s not just privacy risk but a privacy risk associated with a minority group that has suffered repression and persecution for a long time,” Toh said. 

Forbes also mentions a tweet by cybersecurity entrepreneur Matt Suiche, calling the Microsoft the investment “scandalous.”

The American Civil Liberties Union also slammed the investment. Director of Technology Shankar Narayan told Forbes he had met with Microsoft regarding facial recognition technology and at the time the company seemed to be open to the idea of placing limitations on its use. 

However, he added, “This particular investment is not a big surprise to me—there’s a demonstrable gap between action and rhetoric in the case of most big tech companies and Microsoft in particular.” 

He also told Forbes that he wondered about the extent to which AETHER, Microsoft’s advisory board on the ethical issues surrounding the use of artificial intelligence, had looked into the investment in AnyVision. 

The Forbes article mentions a policy laid out by Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith of six principles, adopted by Microsoft in December, with regard to facial recognition: fairness, transparency, accountability, non-discrimination, notice and consent and lawful surveillance.

Last June, AnyVision announced that it had raised $74 million, from Microsoft’s venture capital arm, M12; DFJ Growth; and OG Technology Partners. Qualcomm, Lightspeed Venture Partners and the Bosch Corporation had previously put money into the startup. 

AnyVision says facial recognition technology can boost public security, a position it promotes to the U.S. government through its lobbyists, the Franklin Square Group in Washington.

According to Forbes, in addition to its use in the West Bank, AnyVision sells its Better Tomorrow platform in Russia and Hong Kong .In Hong Kong protesters last week used lasers in an attempt to stop facial recognition profiling them. AnyVision is seeking a sales executive in Hong Kong. 

Forbes notes that in Russia, AnyVision technology has been installed at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport.

Forbes also noted that the company’s  technology is also deployed in Macau, apparently in casinos.

The article mentions close ties between AnyVision and former high-ranking Israeli security officials – the former Mossad chief Tomer Pardo is a consultant. The company’s president, Amir Kain, headed the Defense Ministry’s security department from 2007 to 2015.