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Israel’s surveillance of Palestinians


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BREAKING:
Israel’s surveillance of Palestinians


Israel escalates surveillance of Palestinians with facial recognition program in West Bank

New reporting by the Washington Post reveals an alarming escalation in Israel’s surveillance of Palestinians: The Israeli military has created a database of the general Palestinian population using facial recognition technology in order to track, detain, and further violate the rights of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Here's what you need to know.

By Elizabeth Dwoskin
Yesterday at 2:00 a.m. EST


HEBRON, West Bank — The Israeli military has been conducting a broad surveillance effort in the occupied West Bank to monitor Palestinians by integrating facial recognition with a growing network of cameras and smartphones, according to descriptions of the program by recent Israeli soldiers.

The surveillance initiative, rolled out over the past two years, involves in part a smartphone technology called Blue Wolf that captures photos of Palestinians’ faces and matches them to a database of images so extensive that one former soldier described it as the army’s secret “Facebook for Palestinians.” The phone app flashes in different colors to alert soldiers if a person is to be detained, arrested or left alone.

To build the database used by Blue Wolf, soldiers competed last year in photographing Palestinians, including children and the elderly, with prizes for the most pictures collected by each unit. The total number of people photographed is unclear but, at a minimum, ran well into the thousands.

The surveillance program was described in interviews conducted by The Post with two former Israeli soldiers and in separate accounts that they and four other recently discharged soldiers gave to the Israeli advocacy group Breaking the Silence and were later shared with The Post. Much of the program has not been previously reported. While the Israeli military has acknowledged the existence of the initiative in an online brochure, the interviews with former soldiers offer the first public description of the program’s scope and operations.

In addition to Blue Wolf, the Israeli military has installed face-scanning cameras in the divided city of Hebron to help soldiers at checkpoints identify Palestinians even before they present their ID cards. A wider network of closed-circuit television cameras, dubbed “Hebron Smart City,” provides real-time monitoring of the city’s population and, one former soldier said, can sometimes see into private homes.

The former soldiers who were interviewed for this article and who spoke with Breaking the Silence, an advocacy group composed of Israeli army veterans that opposes the occupation, discussed the surveillance program on the condition of anonymity for fear of social and professional repercussions. The group says it plans to publish its research.

They said they were told by the military that the efforts were a powerful augmentation of its capabilities to defend Israel against terrorists. But the program also demonstrates how surveillance technologies that are hotly debated in Western democracies are already being used behind the scenes in places where people have fewer freedoms.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable if they used it in the mall in [my hometown], let’s put it that way,” said a recently discharged Israeli soldier who served in an intelligence unit. “People worry about fingerprinting, but this is that several times over.” She told The Post that she was motivated to speak out because the surveillance system in Hebron was a “total violation of privacy of an entire people.”

Israel’s use of surveillance and facial recognition appear to be among the most elaborate deployments of such technology by a country seeking to control a subject population, according to experts with the digital civil rights organization AccessNow.

In response to questions about the surveillance program, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said “routine security operations” were “part of the fight against terrorism and the efforts to improve the quality of life for the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria.” (Judea and Samaria is the official Israeli name for the West Bank.)


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