Ramzy Baroud – Days of Palestine
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 by Kufyias â traditional Palestinian scarves that grew to symbolize Palestinian resistance â 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; at times, even assassinated.
In the past, Israel used basic technologies to identify Palestinians who take part in protests and mobilize the people in various popular activities.
TV news footage or newspaper photos were thoroughly deciphered, often with the help of Israelâs collaborators in the Occupied Territories, and the âculpritsâ would be identified, summoned to meet Shin Bet intelligence officers or arrested from their homes.
That old technique was eventually replaced by more advanced technology, countless images transmitted directly through Israeli drones â the flagship of Israelâs âsecurity industryâ. Thousands of Palestinians were detained and hundreds were assassinated in recent years as a result of Israeli drone data, analyzed through Israelâs burgeoning facial recognition software.
If in the past, Palestinian activists were keen on keeping their identity hidden, now they have much more compelling reasons 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, whose sole aim is to crush any form of dissent among Palestinians.
Microsoft prides itself on being a leader in corporate social responsibility (CSR), emphasizing that âprivacy (is) a fundamental human right.â
The Washington-State based software giant dedicates much attention, at least on paper, to the subject of human rights. âMicrosoft is committed to respecting human rights,â Microsoft Global Human Rights Statement asserts. âWe do this by harnessing the beneficial power of technology to help realize and sustain human rights everywhere.â
In practice, however, Microsoftâs words are hardly in line with its action, at least not when its human rights maxims are applied to occupied and besieged Palestinians.
Writing in the American news network NBC News on October 27, Olivia Solon reported on Microsoft funding of the Israeli firm, AnyVision, which uses facial recognition âto secretly watch West Bank Palestiniansâ.
Through its venture capital arm M12, Microsoft has reportedly invested $78 million in the Israeli startup company that âuses facial recognition to surveil Palestinians throughout the West Bank, in spite of the tech giantâs public pledge to avoid using the technology if it encroaches on democratic freedomsâ.
AnyVision had developed an âadvanced tactical surveillanceâ software system, dubbed âBetter Tomorrowâ that, according to a joint NBC News-Haaretz investigation, âlets 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.â
As disquieting as âBetter Tomorrowâsâ mission sounds, it takes on a truly sinister objective in Palestine. âAccording to five sources familiar with the matter,â wrote Solon, âAnyVisionâs technology powers a secret military surveillance project throughout the West Bank.â
âOne source said the project is nicknamed âGoogle Ayosh,â where âAyoshâ means occupied Palestinian territories and âGoogleâ denotes the technologyâs ability to search for people.â
Headquartered in Israel, AnyVision has several offices around the world, including the US, the UK, and Singapore. Considering the nature of AnyVisionâs work, and the intrinsic link between Israelâs technology sector and the countryâs military, it should have been assumed that the companyâs software is likely used to track down Palestinian dissidents.
In July, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz pointed out that âAnyVision 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.â
Former AnyVision employees spoke to NBC News about their experiences with the company, one even asserting that he/she âsaw no evidence that ethical considerations drove any business decisionsâ at the firm.
The alarming reports invited strong protests by human rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Alas, Microsoft carried on with supporting AnyVisionâs work unhindered.
This is not the first time that Microsoft has been caught red-handed in its support of the Israeli military or criticized for other unethical practices.
Unlike Facebook, Google and others, who are constantly, albeit deservingly being chastised for violating privacy rules or allowing politics to influence their editorial agenda, Microsoft has been left largely outside the brewing controversies. But, like the rest, Microsoft should be held to account.
In its âHuman Rights Statementâ, Microsoft declared its respect for human rights based on international conventions, starting with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In occupying and oppressing Palestinians, Israel violates every article of that declaration, starting with Article 1, which states that âAll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,â and including Article 3: âEveryone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.â
It will take Microsoft more than hyperlinking to a UN document 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 towards respecting human rights is to immediately divest from AnyVision, coupled with an apology for all of those who have already paid the price for that ominous Israeli technology.
Edited for IMEMC: Ali Salam