Apartheid is lucrative for Israeli tech

(Face recognition)

Jack Dodson

Mondoweiss  /  December 4, 2022 

Despite their connections to apartheid, Israeli tech companies like Oosto continue to find support from foreign investors and governments, including the United States. The double standard towards Israeli tech perpetuates a culture of oppression targeting Palestinians.

Bruce Reed, deputy chief of staff to United States President Joe Biden, took the stage at a press event on October 4 to celebrate a milestone for his administration. They would be releasing a blueprint for use of artificial intelligence that would guide future policies around its ethical use.

“Most Americans think Washington can be better at artificial than at intelligence, but this is a group that got it right,” Reed said, before arguing that tech should be used to strengthen democracy rather than undermine it. “We’re kicking off this work, leading by example, with real commitments from across the federal government.”

The document he was introducing, called the “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights,” opens with a very clear statement: “You should be protected from unsafe or ineffective systems,” it reads. “Automated systems should be developed with consultation from diverse communities, stakeholders and domain experts.” A major exception the white paper outlines is in cases of “national security,” including policing, arguing that those state powers require a separate criteria of ethics. On top of that, the blueprint explicitly states that it does not create any legal or logistical standard that is enforceable.

Buried in an appendix for the 52-page white paper was a list of companies that had provided information to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, which drafted the document. One of those companies was the Israeli tech firm Oosto, formerly known as AnyVision – an Israeli tech firm that had made international headlines for its invasive surveillance technology battle-tested on Palestinians.

Biden’s proposed AI Bill of Rights exemplifies the double standards the U.S. government, financial, and corporate sectors employ when it comes to technology and human rights. Although each of these sectors co-opt progressive language to condemn abuses of authoritarian tech by, the U.S. embrace to the Israeli tech sector shows it has no problem exploiting and profiting off the tools used to entrench and solidify the apartheid system subjugating Palestinians. And there is no clearer example than AnyVision.

Techno-apartheid from AnyVision to Oosto

The brand name AnyVision was tarnished, connected to the occupation on a worldwide stage and emblematic of problematic tech.

Founded in 2015, the company, now called Oosto, had built a foundation around oppressive and militarized tech. The core idea was that they could patch into CCTV cameras and then use artificial intelligence to track who was appearing in the footage. Despite the fact they had contracted with the Israeli government to surveil Palestinians at checkpoints and within the West Bank, they insisted to Israeli media in 2019 that they only sold their product “to democracies.”

Oosto brands itself as an “ethical” AI company, complete with an ethics review board and an ethics statement that states, “Our software must not be used for unlawful discrimination.”

Even as media reports highlighted its role in oppressive military surveillance targeting Palestinians, hundreds of millions of dollars from foreign investors continued to flood in.

The company had received bad press after Microsoft commissioned an investigation by Obama’s former attorney general Eric Holder into whether AnyVision had participated in Israel’s occupation. Microsoft had sought the investigation following a campaign asking the company to follow their own ethics principles, leading them to revisit their investment with the Israeli firm. They eventually divested from the venture.

By 2021, there was a growing accountability movement targeting apartheid-aligned Israeli firms that the U.S. government could no longer ignore.

NSO Group had made headlines over the summer after its program Pegasus, a zero-click spyware program, was used to track journalists, politicians and activists. It wasn’t the first time; that company had been implicated in the murder of Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 after it was revealed by human rights groups that Pegasus was sold to oppressive governments around the world.

NSO Group was prominently blacklisted by the U.S. government in 2021 after it was revealed that U.S. diplomats had also been targeted by the tech.

“They just get upset when it’s in their backyard,” said Wesam Ahmad, a lawyer who heads the Center for Applied International Law at Al Haq. “They don’t really mind it so long as they’re not also victims of it. And when it hits home that’s when the backlash starts.”

Meanwhile, as a growing number of international advocates for Palestinian rights and human rights organizations sound the alarm on apartheid, the Israeli tech sector has become an awkward point of contention. Despite deep roots in the Israeli military’s system of oppression, with many tech companies contracting with the military or bragging about their founders’ military origins, the sector is flooded with U.S. and E.U. money.

Despite their connections to apartheid, companies like Oosto have continued to raise millions from foreign investors.

“For me, the issue of tech is just one sector where Israel turns the occupation into a business,” Ahmad said. “Israel’s refinement of this art of colonization turns its oppression into profits.”

Weaponizing facial recognition

In 2015, AnyVision was founded by Israeli businessmen Eylon Etshtein, Shlomo Ben-Artzi and Alex Zilberman, as well as British engineer Neil Robertson. From the beginning, the company was embracing the language of state oppression. In 2016, Etshtein told the Israeli tech publication Israel21c their main clients were governments and security agencies.

“Using face-recognition capabilities to prevent or solve criminal and terrorist cases or even to help a kid who gets lost in the city is something revolutionary,” he told the reporter.

Entrenching its militarized approach, AnyVision brought on Tamir Pardo, the former Mossad chief, to serve on its advisory board, as well as IOF general Doron Almog.

In its early years, AnyVision built connections in Asia and Australia, nearly being bought out by the Australian firm Top End Minerals. When that deal fell through, AnyVision instead built connections in the U.S. and Europe. In 2018, the German company Bosch invested $28 million in the company.

AnyVision raised $74 million in their Series A funding round in 2019, garnering millions in investments from Lightspeed Venture Partners and Qualcomm Ventures, both U.S.-based firms. After opening a second headquarters in New York, the company solidified its relationship with the U.S. tech scene by hiring Avi Golan, who previously led teams at Google and Intuit in Silicon Valley, as its CEO.

A last-minute addition to that Series A was Microsoft, prompting an NBC reporter to question the software company’s investment in an Israeli firm that was actively surveilling Palestinians in the West Bank.

Oosto’s tech has repeatedly been linked to the Israeli military. In one case, they were found to use facial recognition at checkpoints to determine which Palestinians have a work permit and which do not. This practice is not only a major violation of privacy, collecting data on an occupied population — it’s not even accurate.

A 2019 report by U.S.’s National Institute of Standards and Technology found that facial recognition software, including data from then-AnyVision’s programs, cannot accurately identify non-Caucasian people. In marketing materials, Oosto has claimed to have 99.9% accuracy in its readings.

The Israeli military said the Oosto system installed at checkpoints was pulling from 450,000 identification photos of West Bank Palestinians.

The other contract Oosto has with the Israeli military is more classified, but involves using CCTV cameras to surveil Palestinians inside the West Bank — beyond just at checkpoints. The Israeli military presented Oosto with a top security award for its work.

While the Microsoft-funded audit led by Holder concluded that the firm does not conduct “mass surveillance” in the West Bank, they could not reveal the details of their investigation because Oosto’s collaboration with the IOF is classified. It was, however, enough to lead Microsoft to divest from the company.

Despite all of these overt connections to oppression, Oosto’s technology has been purchased by U.S. state and federal agencies repeatedly. According to the Government Accountability Office, it’s been used by the Department of Veterans Affairs Police Service, as well as the Centers for Disease Control as late as August 2021.

Company officials have gone on to high profile careers in the U.S. tech scene. And Oosto raised $235 million in 2021 in a Series C funding round led by SoftBank, the Japanese multinational that hired an ex-Mossad chief to run its venture fund in Israel.

On top of that, the company uses its presence in the U.S. to lobby members of Congress.

Similar to Oosto, NSO Group has said its technology was mainly built to catch “terrorists.” Both companies represent a tech sector that is defined by military connections. While one firm has seen pushback from the international community, the other has rebranded its way out of trouble.

“What we’ve got in Israel is a bunch of really smart people who at a very young age enter the military, could be in combat units or cyber units, but ultimately they’re thrown into the Israeli society with huge capabilities, and that’s why we’re seeing the high tech boom” former Prime Minister Naftali Bennet said at a tech conference in 2021.

Now, Oosto continues to sell its product regularly in the U.S., particularly focusing on hospitals in Israel and the U.S., football stadiums in the U.S., the Taj Mahal and casinos.

Automated oppression

The technology sector has long been tied to militarization around the world. The U.S. military, for example, outsourced much of its research and development to private, for-profit companies through programs like the Defense Innovation Unit during the past few decades. Based on the idea that free market capitalism can allow companies to develop technology with less oversight and red-tape, not to mention more financing from investors, militaries around the world have embraced collaborations with their private tech sectors.

Another key aspect of this approach is cutting costs to the state by automating systems of oppression. Similar tools are being used by police across the United States in schools and on streets: facial recognition, gang databases and predictive AI all are used to control low-income populations.

Jackie Wang, a U.S. scholar focused on surveillance technology and the political economy of police and prisons, wrote in her 2018 book Carceral Capitalism that outsourcing of “security programs” from the state to private firms can be a method of “looting” the marginalized and subjugated communities that the state deems unworthy.

“When government bodies are strapped for cash,” she wrote, “they can raise revenue by implementing software that automates the process of finding people… Though this practice seems benign, it can become a nightmarish scenario when a person (perhaps they have moved) never receives a ticket and thus has a warrant out for their arrest.”

While her book primarily deals with Black communities in the U.S., Wang in 2018 connected the struggle to the Palestinian liberation movement by arguing that the carceral state operates across borders and can be seen in occupied Palestine, apartheid South Africa and in the Jim Crow era of the U.S.

Oosto’s tech at checkpoints, for example, provides a similar mechanism to what Wang describes: the state saves money on labor at the expense of Palestinians’ privacy.

The Israeli economy, built on extraction of resources from the land and labor from Palestinian workers, is by definition removing any possibility of Palestinian economic prosperity, according to rights workers.

“The complex system of control and restrictions that Israel enforces in the occupied Palestinian territory to the exclusive profit of its colonies crushes the possibility for Palestinians to freely pursue their economic development and ‘dispose of their natural wealth and resources,’” wrote UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese in last month’s report on the situation in the West Bank, which argued for a paradigm shift among the international community.

Israeli tech companies not only benefit from this process but are active participants in the subjugation. Firms like Oosto treat Palestinians in the West Bank as fodder for data collection, which is then used to sell their “security” programs to international clients.

New face for privatized apartheid

At the end of October 2021, amid panic in the Israeli technology sector as the international community was rallying to condemn NSO Group for developing and selling authoritarian spyware, the Holon-based facial recognition AI company AnyVision announced they were shifting their branding. They would be changing their name.

In changing their name, Oosto was embodying a key duality in the Israeli tech sector’s existence: Israel’s tech market is deeply embedded within the militarized economy while projecting to the world a philosophy based on justice and ethics.

The U.S. government responded to public pressure in 2021 around NSO Group by blacklisting the company based on its authoritarian ties. Oosto, however, is consulted by the White House when drafting a document about ethical AI.

Ahmad said the U.S. government is not actually curbing militarized AI, but rather protecting itself when condemning authoritarian AI. NSO Group’s spyware, he said, is just an example of how the military-industrial complex has evolved in this environment.

“Israel exploits the Palestinian people as a laboratory for research and development,” he said, pointing out that some of the world’s largest tech companies like Amazon and Google participate in these programs. “These kind of gaps within the system of not preventing exploitation in this manner just take us down this black hole… that just reinforces and feeds off the oppression to create more oppression.”

Programs like this will not only harm Palestinians, Ahmad said, but people across the world as they’re implemented against other vulnerable populations.

Jack Dodson is a reporter and documentary filmmaker who was based in Palestine from 2018-2022