IDF's facial recognition tech in West Bank probed

A Washington Post report claimed that the IDF is using facial recognition with a database containing thousands of images of Palestinians.

 An Israeli soldier holds his camera as he patrols the Lebanese-Israeli border as seen from the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila, June 2, 2011 (photo credit: REUTERS/KARAMALLAH DAHER)
An Israeli soldier holds his camera as he patrols the Lebanese-Israeli border as seen from the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila, June 2, 2011
(photo credit: REUTERS/KARAMALLAH DAHER)

The IDF has been making large-scale efforts to monitor Palestinians by using facial recognition on a network of cameras and smartphones, The Washington Post reported on Monday.

The surveillance project uses a smartphone technology called Blue Wolf to capture photos of Palestinians’ faces and match them to a database of images described by one former soldier as the army’s “Facebook for Palestinians.” A phone app flashes in different colors to alert soldiers if a person needs to be detained, arrested or left alone, according to the report.

The Post report comes about two years after it was first reported that the Israeli facial recognition company AnyVision was being used at checkpoints in the West Bank, with the technology helping shorten wait times.

TheMarker reported in 2019 that AnyVision was also being used throughout the West Bank in order to spot and monitor potential Palestinian assailants.

An audit by US international firm Covington & Burling LLP confirmed that the technology was being used at checkpoints, but dismissed claims that it was part of a mass surveillance program.

 A security camera seen overlooking the West Bank city of Hebron. January 15, 2013 (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90) A security camera seen overlooking the West Bank city of Hebron. January 15, 2013 (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

TSG IT Advanced Systems, a Tel Aviv-based security technology company, also told Israel Defense in 2018 that it provided software to Israeli security forces for identifying vehicles and had added facial recognition capabilities to their system.

The Post reported on Sunday that IDF soldiers had received prizes in competitions to photograph Palestinians of all ages last year in order to build up the app’s database, with thousands of individuals photographed so far.

The Blue Wolf database is a smaller version of a larger one called Wolf Pack, which contains profiles of nearly every Palestinian in the West Bank, including photographs, family histories, education and a security rating, one soldier told the newspaper.

Another app called White Wolf has been developed for Jewish settlement security teams in the West Bank to use, although the teams are not allowed to detain people. It can be used to scan Palestinians’ ID cards before they enter a settlement.

The IDF has also installed face-scanning cameras in Hebron in order to help soldiers identify Palestinians at checkpoints even before they check their ID cards.

The report was based on the anonymous testimony of two former Israeli soldiers and of four other former soldiers who spoke to the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, which says that it will publish research on the program in the future.

One soldier stated that she “wouldn’t feel comfortable if they used it in the mall in [my hometown] – let’s put it that way. People worry about fingerprinting, but this is that several times over.”

Official use of facial recognition technology has been banned by at least a dozen US cities, and the European Parliament has called for the technology to be banned for police use as well, according to the Post.

The existence of the initiative has been acknowledged by the IDF in the past, but the paper said that this is the first detailed description of the program.