Yesterday, Microsoft’s venture capital division, M12, announced that it was divesting its $31-million ownership stake in the Israeli facial recognition software company, Anyvision. Israeli media had reported that Anyvision had a contract with Israeli Occupation authorities to maintain a database of West Bank Palestinians.
Human rights groups have found that publicly traded companies like Microsoft are sometimes responsive to pressure when their investments and products violate basic human rights of oppressed peoples. Similar lobbying campaigns by Citizens Lab derailed two different attempts by Verint and Blackstone Group to buy the Israeli hacking giant, NSO Group. Eventually, it was bought by a private venture capital firm, Novalpina Capital, owned by the UK’s Stephen Peel.
Last year, The Marker offered this portrait of Anyvision’s biometric campaign to monitor West Bank Palestinians:
…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. The product lets the army quickly identify whether the person passing through has an Israeli work permit…
The army said in a statement in February: “As part of a wide-ranging program to upgrade the crossings in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] through the addition of technology, 27 biometric crossings have been established and new identification and inspection stations have been added….
Anyvision’s second project is much more confidential and includes facial recognition technology elsewhere in the West Bank, not just at border crossings. Cameras deep inside the West Bank try to spot and monitor potential Palestinian assailants.
NBC’s reporting also confirmed the Israeli report:
According to five sources familiar with the matter, AnyVision’s technology powers a secret military surveillance project throughout the West Bank. One source said the project is nicknamed “Google Ayosh,” where “Ayosh” refers to the occupied Palestinian territories [the Hebrew letters of ‘Ayosh’ are an acronym for Judea and Samaria] and “Google” denotes the technology’s ability to search for people.
…The surveillance project was so successful that AnyVision won the country’s top defense prize in 2018. During the presentation, Israel’s defense minister lauded the company — without using its name — for preventing “hundreds of terror attacks” using “large amounts of data.”
The media outlet also reported the tantalizing passage which confirmed that the firm’s facial recognition technology was also used in East Jerusalem. Separately, I’d reported on an extensive interview with Israel’s Public Security Minister, Gilad Erdan, who suggested that similar facial recognition technology (though the didn’t specify which company supplied it) was being used to surveil Palestinian Muslim worshippers entering the Haram al Sharif. Erdan said:
We’ve added many surveillance cameras on the Temple Mount and its entrances. While it’s true that this doesn’t involve quite the level of technological capability that we wanted, there are facial recognition cameras linked to intelligence databases through which it’s possible to identify [Palestinian terror] suspects.
It’s important to note that when Israel installed metal barriers, queues, and surveillance cameras at the entrances to the holy site, Palestinians rioted for weeks, protest prayer services attracted tens of thousands, and lone Palestinians mounted knife attacks in what became known as the Knife Intifada. Despite Israel claiming at the time that it was withdrawing these powerful new spying tools, this appears to have been a lie.
Anyvision’s technology must be seen in the context of an entire Israeli industry of cyber-technology firms which fuel the Israeli surveillance state. Chief among them and one of the most lucrative, is NSO Group. Following it is cybersecurity giant, Checkpoint Software. Mati Kochavi’s Logic, reaps billions by helping Gulf dictators police their realms. Vocalis is now peddling voice recognition software which will compare the voiceprint of Covid-19 victims with those who haven’t yet been identified as ill in order to ferret out those who don’t yet have any symptoms. There are scores, if not hundreds of other such firms. They are the leading edge of the Israeli national security state. Their exports fuel not only Israel’s economic engine, but also market Israel’s entire value system which prioritizes security over individual rights. That’s why Microsoft’s turnabout is so significant. It acknowledges that there are limits to what western democratic nations should tolerate given the intrusiveness of technology like Anyvision’s.
Returning to the question of Anyvision’s presence in Palestine, Anyvision’s public relations company, Edelman, responded to my query about use of its products in East Jerusalem, claiming that they were not installed at the Haram al Sharif. But given NBC’s and Erdan’s portrayal of the surveillance activities in East Jerusalem, either Edelman was lying or they were reporting what Anyvision told them to say (and Anyvision was lying).
When Microsoft learned of NBC’s story, as a public company touting its adherence to ethical principles, this brutish response by Anyvision’s founder must have made Brad Smith cringe (though the response was typically confrontational for Israelis):
When NBC News first approached AnyVision for an interview, CEO Eylon Etshtein denied any knowledge of “Google Ayosh,” threatened to sue NBC News and said that AnyVision was the “most ethical company known to man.” He disputed that the West Bank was “occupied” and questioned the motivation of the NBC News inquiry, suggesting the reporter must have been funded by a Palestinian activist group.
Anyvision’s corporate board and management is peopled with senior figures from Israeli military-intelligence including former Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo. It’s president is the former head of the Israeli army’s internal security unit, Malmab.
The oddest part of Microsoft’s announcement about selling its share of Anyvision is that concurrently it released the results of a report compiled by Eric Holder and his firm, Covington and Burling, which exonerated Anyvision of all charges leveled against it. The summary of the report claimed:
Based on the evidence reviewed, Covington confirmed that Anyvision technology is used in border crossing checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank…Legal restrictions prevent discussion of additional relevant use cases considered by Covington but not specifically mentioned in media reports. The available evidence, however, demonstrates that Anyvision’s technology has not previously and does not currently power a mass surveillance program in the West Bank that has been alleged in media reports.
…Covington’s review was limited in certain respects by legal restrictions on the disclosure of sensitive information.
Consider that Microsoft probably paid upwards of $1,500 per hour for Holder’s participation in the report. There were certainly many other members of his own team from the firm involved and paid as well. Though I don’t know the exact amount Microsoft spent, I’d estimate it would upwards of $200,000-300,000. When you are working for a major client like Microsoft, you know the result it wants and you provide it. The language of this summary is almost totally opaque. What are the mysterious “legal restrictions” preventing full reporting by Covington? Are the restrictions imposed by the terms of the contract Anyvision signed with the IDF or Shin Bet to implement the surveillance program?
Further, Holder claims there was “no mass surveillance program” in the West Bank. On what basis does he make such a claim? How does he define ‘mass surveillance?’ How does he explain the discrepancy between two separate media reports claiming there is such a program? Finally, what exactly were the “legal restrictions” which limited the investigation? Don’t know about you, but when I read that a law firm charged with investigating wrongdoing admits that its work was hampered in any way, that’s a red flag. In other words, I don’t think this investigation and report was worth the paper it’s written on.
Nevertheless, Microsoft deserves credit. It has done the right thing. It has not only divested from Anyvision, but it has also declared it will not invest in facial recognition technology henceforth. This sets an important precedent that other investors and companies may follow. While China may become the world’s leader in social control and related technologies, that doesn’t mean western companies should follow suit.