Israel implements extensive facial recognition program in Gaza

On November 19, minutes after crossing an Israeli military checkpoint along Gaza's central highway, Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha was asked to step out by the crowd. He put down his 3-year-old son, who he was carrying, and sat down in front of a military jeep.

Half an hour later, Mr. Abu Toha heard his name called. Then he was blindfolded and taken away for interrogation.

“I had no idea what was happening or how they could suddenly know my full legal name,” said the 31-year-old, who added that he had no links to the militant group Hamas and had been trying to leave Gaza for Egypt.

Mr. Abu Toha was found to have come within range of cameras equipped with facial recognition technology, according to three Israeli intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. After his face was scanned and he was identified, an artificial intelligence program discovered that the poet was on an Israeli list of wanted people, they said.

Mr Abu Toha is one of hundreds of Palestinians who have been identified by a previously undisclosed Israeli facial recognition program launched in Gaza late last year. According to Israeli intelligence officers, military officers and soldiers, this expansive and experimental effort is being used to conduct mass surveillance there, collecting and cataloging Palestinians' faces without their knowledge or consent.

The technology was initially used in Gaza to search for Israelis taken hostage by Hamas during cross-border raids on October 7, intelligence officials said. After embarking on a ground offensive in Gaza, Israel has increasingly turned to a program aimed at rooting out anyone with ties to Hamas or other militant groups. At times, the technology incorrectly flagged civilians as wanted Hamas militants, one official said.

The facial recognition program, run by Israel's military intelligence unit, including its cyber-intelligence division Unit 8200, is based on technology from Corsight, a private Israeli company, four intelligence officials said. It also uses Google Photos, they said. Together, the technologies allow Israel to pick out faces in crowds and grainy drone footage.

Three of the people familiar with the program said they spoke out because they feared it was a misuse of Israel's time and resources.

An Israeli army spokesman declined to comment on the activity in Gaza, but said the army “carries out the necessary security and intelligence operations, making significant efforts to minimize harm to the unaffected population.” He added: “Of course, we cannot refer to operational and intelligence capabilities in this context.”

Facial recognition technology has spread around the world in recent years, powered by increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence systems. While some countries use the technology to facilitate air travel, China and Russia have used the technology against minority groups and to suppress dissent. Israel's use of facial recognition in Gaza stands out as an application of the technology in warfare.

Matt Mahmoudi, a researcher at Amnesty International, said Israel's use of facial recognition was worrying because it could lead to “a complete dehumanization of Palestinians” where they are not seen as individuals. He added that Israeli soldiers are unlikely to question the technology when it identifies a person as part of a militant group, even if the technology makes mistakes.

According to an Amnesty report last year, Israel had already used facial recognition in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but in Gaza the effort goes further.

According to the Amnesty report, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem the Israelis have a local facial recognition system called Blue Wolf. At checkpoints in West Bank cities like Hebron, Palestinians are scanned by high-resolution cameras before being allowed through. Soldiers also use smartphone apps to scan Palestinians' faces and add them to a database, the report said.

In Gaza, which Israel withdrew from in 2005, there was no facial recognition technology. Hamas surveillance in Gaza was instead conducted by tapping phone lines, interrogating Palestinian prisoners, collecting drone footage, gaining access to private social media accounts and hacking telecommunications systems, Hamas officials said. Israeli intelligence.

After October 7, Israeli intelligence officers from Unit 8200 turned to such surveillance to obtain information about Hamas gunmen violating Israel's borders. The unit also analyzed footage of the attacks taken by security cameras, as well as videos uploaded by Hamas to social media, an official said. He said the unit was told to create a “hit list” of Hamas members who participated in the attack.

Corsight was then brought in to set up a facial recognition program in Gaza, three Israeli intelligence officials said.

The company, based in Tel Aviv, says on its website that its technology requires less than 50% of a face to be visible for accurate recognition. Robert Watts, president of Corsight, posted this month on LinkedIn that facial recognition technology could work at “extreme angles, (even from drones), darkness and poor quality.”

Corsight declined to comment.

Unit 8200 personnel soon discovered that Corsight's technology struggled if footage was grainy and faces were obscured, one officer said. When the military attempted to identify the bodies of Israelis killed on October 7, the technology didn't always work for people whose faces had been injured. There have also been false positives, or cases in which a person was wrongly identified as linked to Hamas, the official said.

To integrate Corsight's technology, Israeli officers used Google Photos, Google's free photo sharing and storage service, three intelligence officials said. By uploading a database of known people to Google Photos, Israeli officials could use the service's photo search function to identify people.

Google's ability to match faces and identify people even if only a small part of their face is visible is superior to that of other technologies, an official said. The military continued to use Corsight because it was customizable, officials said.

A Google spokesperson said Google Photos is a free consumer product that “does not provide identities to unknown people in photographs.”

The facial recognition program in Gaza has grown as Israel expands its military offensive there. Israeli soldiers entering Gaza were provided with cameras equipped with this technology. Soldiers also set up checkpoints along main roads that Palestinians used to flee areas of heavy fighting, with cameras scanning faces.

The objectives of the program were to search for Israeli hostages, as well as Hamas fighters who might be detained for questioning, Israeli intelligence officials said.

The guidelines on who to stop were intentionally broad, one said. Palestinian prisoners were asked to name people from their communities who they believed were part of Hamas. Israel would then seek out those people, hoping they would provide more information.

Mr Abu Toha, the Palestinian poet, was named a member of Hamas by someone in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahia, where he lived with his family, Israeli intelligence officials said. Officials said there was no specific information attached to his file that would explain a connection to Hamas.

In an interview, Mr. Abu Toha, who wrote “Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza,” Shelp, has no connection with Hamas.

When he and his family were stopped at a military checkpoint on November 19 while trying to leave for Egypt, he said he did not show any identification when asked to leave by the crowd.

After being handcuffed and taken to sit under a tent with several dozen men, he heard someone say that the Israeli army had used “new technology” on the group. Within 30 minutes, Israeli soldiers called him by his full legal name.

Mr. Abu Toha said he was beaten and interrogated in an Israeli detention center for two days before being returned to Gaza without explanation. He wrote about his experience in the New Yorker, where he is a contributor. He attributed his release to a campaign led by journalists at the New Yorker and other publications.

After his release, Israeli soldiers told him that his interrogation had been a “mistake,” he said.

In a statement at the time, the Israeli military said Mr Abu Toha had been interrogated due to “intelligence indicating a number of interactions between several civilians and terrorist organizations within the Gaza Strip”.

Mr. Abu Toha, who is now in Cairo with his family, said he was not aware of any facial recognition program in Gaza.

“I didn't know Israel was capturing or recording my face,” he said. But Israel “has been watching us from the sky for years with its drones. They watched us garden, go to school, and kiss our wives. I feel like I've been watched for so long.

Kashmir Hill contributed to the reporting.

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