Microsoft reviews Israeli facial recognition company
Microsoft is investigating an Israeli facial recognition start-up over concerns that it is using technology to conduct mass surveillance of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
Microsoft said former US attorney general Eric Holder will lead a team to review its investment in the company.
Its aim is to determine whether Israeli company AnyVision’s technology applications comply with Microsoft’s ethical principles against using facial recognition for mass surveillance.
AnyVision announced a $74 million (Dh271.7m) investment in June from a group including Microsoft’s venture capital arm. The company and its Microsoft backing attracted public scrutiny because the Israeli military installed face scanners at border crossings where Palestinians enter Israel from the West Bank.
AnyVision said its technology is used at border crossings in a way similar to how facial recognition is used at some airports.
AnyVision, based outside Tel Aviv, has come under scrutiny in reports by Haaretz newspaper and NBC News saying that its technology is used to monitor Palestinians who live in the West Bank, including potential assailants. Many Palestinian attacks have taken place against Israeli soldiers there.
The investigation reflects growing unease about facial recognition surveillance in the US and elsewhere that civil liberties groups say could lead to unfair arrests and limit freedom of expression.
Microsoft announced ethical principles for facial recognition last year, saying the company would “advocate for safeguards for people’s democratic freedoms in law-enforcement surveillance scenarios and will not use facial recognition technology in scenarios that we believe will put these freedoms at risk”.
M12, the venture fund of Microsoft, participated in the $74m series A investment round that AnyVision announced in June. The former head of Mossad, Tamir Pardo, is on the company’s advisory board.
Israel faces criticism and a boycott for the occupation and its policies towards Palestinians.
AnyVision in August said it would announce an ethics advisory board and that it had a responsibility to prevent its technology’s abuse. At the same time, it touted how facial recognition speeds up border crossings while helping law enforcement to spot criminals.
Microsoft itself markets a facial recognition tool and backed a US Senate bill, announced on Thursday, that would require a court order before federal law enforcement could use the technology for targeted, ongoing surveillance.
Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the bill “falls woefully short of protecting people’s privacy rights”.