By Ramzy Baroud
The act of Palestinian activists covering their faces during anti-Israeli occupation rallies is an old practice that spans decades. The masking of the face, often with keffiyehs — traditional scarves that have grown to symbolize Palestinian resistance — is far from being a fashion statement. Instead, it is a survival technique; without it, activists are likely to be arrested in subsequent nightly raids or, sometimes, even assassinated.
In the past, Israel used basic technology to identify the Palestinians who took part in protests and mobilized the people. TV news footage or newspaper photos were thoroughly studied, often with the help of Israel’s collaborators in the Occupied Territories, and the “culprits” would be identified and summoned to meet Shin Bet intelligence officers or arrested in their homes.
That old technique was eventually replaced by more advanced technology, with countless images now transmitted directly through Israeli drones — the flagship of Israel’s “security industry.” Thousands of Palestinians have been detained and hundreds assassinated in recent years as a result of data provided by drones, which is then analyzed by Israel’s burgeoning facial recognition software.
If, in the past, Palestinian activists were keen on keeping their identity hidden, they now have much more compelling reasons to want to ensure the complete secrecy of their work. Considering the information sharing between the Israeli army and illegal Jewish settlers and their armed militias in the occupied West Bank, Palestinians face the double threat of being targeted by armed settlers as well as by Israeli soldiers.
True, when it comes to Israel, such a grim reality is hardly surprising. But what is truly disturbing is the direct involvement of international corporate giants — the likes of Microsoft — in facilitating the work of the Israeli military, which wants to crush any form of dissent among Palestinians.
Microsoft prides itself on being a leader in corporate social responsibility (CSR), emphasizingthat “privacy (is) a fundamental human right.” The Washington state-based software giant pays much attention, at least on paper, to the subject of human rights. “Microsoft is committed to respecting human rights,” the company’s “Global Human Rights Statement” asserts. “We do this by harnessing the beneficial power of technology to help realize and sustain human rights everywhere.”
In practice, however, Microsoft’s words are hardly in line with its actions, at least not when its human rights maxims are applied to occupied and besieged Palestinians. Writing for the American network NBC last week, Olivia Solon reportedon Microsoft’s funding of Israeli firm AnyVision. Through its venture capital arm M12, Microsoft has reportedly invested$78 million in the startup company, which “uses facial recognition to surveil Palestinians throughout the West Bank, in spite of the tech giant’s public pledge to avoid using the technology if it encroaches on democratic freedoms.” AnyVision is behind an “advanced tactical surveillance” software system, dubbed Better Tomorrow, that “lets customers identify individuals and objects in any live camera feed, such as a security camera or smartphone, and then track targets as they move between different feeds.”
As disquieting as Better Tomorrow’s mission sounds, it takes on a truly sinister objective in Palestine. “According to five sources familiar with the matter,” wrote Solon, “AnyVision’s technology powers a secret military surveillance project throughout the West Bank. One source said the project is nicknamed ‘Google Ayosh,’ where ‘Ayosh’ means occupied Palestinian territories and ‘Google’ denotes the technology’s ability to search for people.”
Headquartered in Israel, AnyVision has several offices around the world, including the US, the UK and Singapore. Considering the nature of AnyVision’s work and the intrinsic link between Israel’s technology sector and the country’s military, Microsoft should have assumed that the company’s software would likely be used to track down Palestinian dissidents.
In July, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz pointed outthat: “AnyVision is taking part in two special projects in assisting the Israeli army in the West Bank. One involves a system that it has installed at army checkpoints that thousands of Palestinians pass through each day on their way to work from the West Bank.”
Former AnyVision employees spoke to NBC Newsabout their experiences with the company, with one asserting that they “saw no evidence that ethical considerations drove any business decisions” at the firm.
These alarming reports invitedstrong protests by human rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Alas, Microsoft carried on supporting AnyVision’s work unhindered.
This is not the first time that Microsoft has been caught red-handed in its supportof the Israeli military or criticizedfor unethical practices. Unlike Facebook, Google and others, who are constantly, and deservingly, chastised for violating privacy rules or allowing politics to influence their editorial agenda, Microsoft has been left largely out of such controversies. But, like the rest, Microsoft should be held to account.
In its human rights statement, Microsoft declares its respect for human rights based on international conventions, starting with the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But, in occupying and oppressing Palestinians, Israel violates every article of that declaration, starting with Article 1, which states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” and Article 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
It will take more than a hyperlink to a UN document for Microsoft to show true and sincere respect for human rights. Indeed, for a company that enjoys great popularity throughout the Middle East and in Palestine itself, an inevitable first step toward respecting human rights would be to immediately divest from AnyVision, coupled with an apology to all of those who have already paid the price for that ominous Israeli technology.