Israel’s Vast Facial Recognition Program in Gaza Exposed

Israel surveillance program in Gaza, illustrative image

Israel intelligence officials are reportedly using cameras with facial recognition technology to surveil Palestinians and identify suspected militants. However, while the technology was initially used to search for kidnapped Israelis in Gaza, it is reportedly now being used, to mixed results, to flag members of Hamas.

According to reporting by The New York Times, the facial recognition system is operated by Israel’s military intelligence unit, including its cyber-intelligence-focused Unit 8200, which has shouldered some blame for failing to forecast and prevent the October 7th attack in Israel.

The facial recognition program utilizes technology from private Israeli firm Corsight and Google Photos. “Combined, the technologies enable Israel to pick faces out of crowds and grainy drone footage,” writes NYT‘s Sheera Frenkel. The Times wrote its bombshell report with information provided by people familiar with the program, three of whom have concerns with the program being a “misuse of time and resources by Israel.”

Israel surveillance program in Gaza, illustrative image

An Israeli army spokesperson declined to comment on the military’s operations in Gaza, although told NYT that the military “carries out necessary security and intelligence operations, while making significant efforts to minimize harm to the uninvolved population.”

“Naturally, we cannot refer to operational and intelligence capabilities in this context,” he adds.

Matt Mahmoudi, a researcher with Amnesty International, explains that Israel’s use of facial recognition could dehumanize Palestinians. He also worries that military personnel are unlikely to question the accuracy and efficacy of the intelligence they receive, increasing the risk of cases of mistaken identity.

Amnesty International has recently called Israel’s facial recognition surveillance technology “Automated apartheid.” Facial recognition, as controversial as it can be, has only increased with the advent of the October 7th attacks.

Israel surveillance program in Gaza, illustrative image

Corsight, which also declined to provide comment to New York Times, was hired by Israel to create a facial recognition program in Gaza, according to sources. Corsight claims that its facial recognition technology can work with less than 50 percent of a face visible, and provide accurate results at extreme angles and from images shot in darkness or those with bad image quality.

Those familiar with the technology and its implementation in Gaza have their doubts.

“Unit 8200 personnel soon found that Corsight’s technology struggled if footage was grainy and faces were obscured, one officer said. When the military tried identifying the bodies of Israelis killed on Oct. 7, the technology could not always work for people whose faces had been injured. There were also false positives, or cases when a person was mistakenly identified as being connected to Hamas, the officer said,” The New York Times explains.

Israel officers reportedly used Google Photos, a free photo-sharing and storage platform, alongside Corsight’s facial recognition technology. The officers claim they uploaded a database of known individuals to Google Photos and then used Google’s search function to identify individuals.

Google notes that its free Google Photos service cannot provide identities for unknown individuals.

Israel surveillance program in Gaza, illustrative image

This is not necessarily a significant roadblock for Israeli intelligence, as the military’s surveillance effort, which includes capturing photos of Palestinian faces and creating a massive image library, is well-documented. A former Israeli soldier called this surveillance effort, dubbed Blue Wolf, the military’s “Facebook for Palestinians.” The accompanying app reportedly flashes different colors when it sees a Palestinian’s face, telling the soldier what they should do — detain, arrest, or ignore.

Facial recognition technology, as problematic as it can be, is on the rise worldwide. China and Russia have used facial recognition technology to track minority groups and quell dissent.

In the case of Israel’s increased use of facial recognition technology in Gaza, it has already had bad outcomes for some Palestinians, including poet Mosab Abu Toha, who was erroneously held and brutally interrogated by Israel for two days in November after he was mistakenly identified as a Hamas militant.

When soldiers called his name at a checkpoint as Toha attempted to leave Gaza for Egypt with his family, he had “no idea what was happening or how they could suddenly know my full legal name.”

Israel surveillance program in Gaza, illustrative image

“It turned out Mr. Abu Toha had walked into the range of cameras embedded with facial recognition technology, according to three Israeli intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. After his face was scanned and he was identified, an artificial intelligence program found that the poet was on an Israeli list of wanted persons, they said,” NYT reports.

Toha is reportedly one of hundreds of Palestinians picked out by the secretive facial recognition program, which collects and catalogs Palestinian faces, unbeknownst to them.

“I did not know Israel was capturing or recording my face,” Toha tells The Times, adding that Israel has “been watching us for years from the sky with their drones. They have been watching us gardening and going to schools and kissing our wives. I feel like I have been watched for so long.”

Israel called Toha’s detainment a “mistake.” The poet detailed his experience for The New Yorker, where he is a regular contributor.

Image credits: Photos licensed via Depositphotos.