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NBC News: Microsoft funds Israel firm that spies on West Bank Palestinians

October 29, 2019 at 12:44 pm

Microsoft logo on 19 July, 2018 [Aytaç Ünal/Anadolu Agency]

Microsoft has invested in an Israeli startup that uses facial recognition to spy on Palestinians throughout the occupied West Bank, “in spite of the tech giant’s public pledge to avoid using the technology if it encroaches on democratic freedoms”, NBC News has reported.

AnyVision, headquartered in Israel but with offices in the United States, the United Kingdom and Singapore, sells an “advanced tactical surveillance” software system, Better Tomorrow.

“It lets customers identify individuals and objects in any live camera feed, such as a security camera or a smartphone, and then track targets as they move between different feeds,” said the report.

NBC News’ investigative report concluded that “AnyVision’s technology powers a secret military surveillance project throughout the West Bank” – a project “so successful that AnyVision won the country’s [Israel’s] top defence prize in 2018”.

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As noted by NBC News, “Palestinians living in the West Bank do not have Israeli citizenship or voting rights but are subject to movement restrictions and surveillance by the Israeli government.”

Israeli forces have “installed thousands of cameras and other monitoring devices across the West Bank”, while authorities “also scan social media posts and use algorithms in an effort to predict the likelihood that someone will carry out a lone-wolf attack and arrest them before they do.”

“The addition of facial recognition technology transforms passive camera surveillance combined with the list of suspects into a much more powerful tool,” the report stated.

When NBC News first approached AnyVision for an interview, CEO Eylon Etshtein denied any knowledge of the West Bank project, threatened to sue, disputed that the West Bank was occupied, and suggested the reporter “must have been funded by a Palestinian activist group”.

AnyVision then later “apologised for the outburst and revised its position”, claiming that “as a private company we are not in a position to speak on behalf of any country, company or institution”.

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NBC News also confirmed how AnyVision’s technology has also been used by Israeli police to track suspects through the Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem.

AnyVision launched in 2015 and enjoys “close ties to Israel’s military and intelligence services”, NBC News stated, with former head of Mossad Tamir Pardo among its board of advisers.

Microsoft told NBC News that the company “takes these mass surveillance allegations seriously because they would violate our facial recognition principles.”

“If we discover any violation of our principles, we will end our relationship,” a spokesperson said.

Earlier this month Palestinians in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah discovered a surveillance device planted in concrete at a village cemetery. According to Ma’an News Agency, the monitoring tool was manufactured by AnyVision.

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