Israel is using AI and facial recognition to monitor Palestinians, Amnesty report says

Hebh Jamal

Mondoweiss  /  May 8, 2023

A new Amnesty International report documents Israel’s dystopian colonial surveillance in East Jerusalem and Hebron/Al-Khalil which have become “laboratories” for facial recognition and AI technology.

Amnesty International released a new report this month titled “Automated Apartheid.” Their latest investigation shows that Israeli authorities are using an experimental facial recognition system, Red Wolf, to track Palestinians and automate harsh restrictions on their freedom of movement. 

In 2022, Amnesty found Israel’s treatment of Palestinians amounts to the crime of apartheid under international law. This latest report shows how the new Red Wolf system is part of a growing surveillance network that is entrenching the Israeli government’s control over Palestinians, helping to maintain their system of apartheid. 

According to Amnesty International’s findings, the use of facial recognition technology by Israel to target Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem has escalated, particularly following protests and in regions surrounding illegal settlements. In Hebron and occupied East Jerusalem, the facial recognition software complements a comprehensive network of Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras, which surveil Palestinians almost continuously.“Automated Apartheid” exposes how this monitoring forms part of a calculated effort by Israeli officials to generate a hostile and coercive environment for Palestinians, with the ultimate goal of limiting their presence in critical zones.

Dr. Matt Mahmoudi, Amnesty’s researcher and adviser on artificial intelligence and human rights, explains to Mondoweiss how Hebron and East Jerusalem have become a “laboratory” for the latest way in which Palestinians are brutalized.  

Palestine as a ‘laboratory’ for AI technology

“It is important to establish that surveillance technologies that are driven by artificial intelligence have been experimented on Palestinians for quite a few years now with Wolf Pack and Blue Wolf,” Mahmoudi said.  Wolf Pack is a vast database containing all available information on Palestinians from the occupied Palestinian territory, including where they live, their family members, and whether they are wanted to be questioned by Israeli authorities. Blue Wolf is an app that Israeli forces can access via smartphones and tablets and which can instantly pull up the information stored in the Wolf Pack database. 

Now, however, Red Wolf operates on another more entrenched level. “Red Wolf is a system that builds on the Blue Wolf app, but it’s being deployed specifically at the checkpoints where the system determines who can and who cannot pass.” 

Over time, Red Wolf’s database of Palestinian faces expands. According to testimony provided to Breaking the Silence, an Israeli commander stationed in Hebron revealed that soldiers are assigned the duty of training and improving the facial recognition algorithm of Red Wolf, enabling it to identify faces automatically without human intervention.

“So when a Palestinian person is trying to either walk out of their home and are trying to go through Checkpoint 56 for example, they would be subject to a system that is trying to identify their face, either based on biometric capture that had happened previously or through having been specifically summoned to the checkpoint to have their photos taken.” 

Amnesty’s decision to study and investigate Hebron and East Jerusalem instead of other cities in the West Bank was intentional.  “We focused on the two major Palestinian cities that had Israeli settlers within them. Despite de jure and de facto annexation, the State of Israel is deploying facial recognition technologies and using the security justifications under the auspices of protecting its settlers which comes at the expense of Palestinians. Under international law, we would see that justification as void. ” 

Infamously, Hebron has been described by the Israeli military as a “smart city.” However, the reality is that its streets are filled with surveillance cameras mounted on the sides of buildings, lampposts, towers, and rooftops. For Palestinians, this omnipresent surveillance has exacerbated the segregation between settlers and Palestinians. 

“In Hebron, AI has become the latest tool through which the permanence of the occupation is made clear. Israel is now using AI technology to take stock of who is moving where and how and to potentially be stopped in order to be registered into a large database that are then used elsewhere to determine their movement,” Mahmoudi said. 

And in occupied East Jerusalem, Israel operates a network of thousands of CCTV cameras across the Old City, known as Mabat 2000. Since 2017, Israeli authorities have been upgrading this system to enhance its facial recognition capabilities and give themselves unprecedented powers of surveillance. 

Amnesty International mapped CCTV cameras across an area of 10 square kilometers in occupied East Jerusalem, including the Old City and Sheikh Jarrah, and found one to two CCTV cameras every five meters. According to the report and Mahmoudi, this increase correlates with areas of political and cultural significance for Palestinians. 

The surveillance of Palestinians has been gamified where soldiers revealed that the Blue Wolf app generates rankings based on the number of registered Palestinians, with Israeli commanders offering prizes to the battalion with the highest score, rewarding constant surveillance.

“The increase of these cameras can be seen following the crackdown on protests in Sheikh Jarrah in 2021 after the eviction of seven Palestinian families. And more generally we are seeing a particular increase of surveillance in areas where there is heightened illegal settler activity,” Mahmoudi said. 

And there is even an incentive for soldiers to continue to register Palestinians to this new database. According to the testimony provided by military personnel, the surveillance of Palestinians has been gamified where soldiers revealed that the Blue Wolf app generates rankings based on the number of registered Palestinians, with Israeli commanders offering prizes to the battalion with the highest score, rewarding constant surveillance. 

Amnesty International is calling on Israeli authorities to end the mass and targeted surveillance of Palestinians and lift the arbitrary restrictions they have imposed on Palestinians’ freedom of movement across the occupied Palestinian territory, as necessary steps towards dismantling apartheid. They are also calling for a global ban on the development, sale and use of facial recognition technology for surveillance purposes. 

“We’ve made it clear that there is an intention to dominate and control Palestinians. It is inhumane and we’re calling on advocates and states to use our report as a resource for making it clear that the State of Israel needs to end its apartheid against Palestinians,” Mahmoudi said. 

The advancement of AI technology and Red Wolf poses new dangers for Palestinians under an apartheid system, yet Mahmoudi warns of this technology negatively impacting all underserved communities. 

“It’s been clear that certainly for AI driven forms of surveillance, there’s far more research to support their harms and their discriminatory effect than there is research showing that it does anything by way of a security agenda. We’ve seen how facial recognition usage has been used in places like India and China and now it is not a surprise to any of us that these tools, once again, are eroding the freedoms and human rights in the case of the Palestinians.”

Hebh Jamal is a Palestinian American journalist from New York City now based in Germany