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Israel deploys extensive facial recognition program in Gaza| GuyWhoKnowsThings

Within minutes of passing through an Israeli military checkpoint along Gaza's central highway on November 19, the Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha He was asked to leave the crowd. She left her three-year-old son that he was carrying on the ground and sat in front of a military jeep.

Half an hour later, Mr. Abu Toha heard his name called. They then blindfolded him and took him away for questioning.

“I had no idea what was happening or how they could suddenly know my full legal name,” said the 31-year-old, adding that he had no ties to the Hamas militant group and had been trying to leave Gaza for Egypt.

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

Abu Toha is one of hundreds of Palestinians who have been targeted by a previously undisclosed Israeli facial recognition program that began in Gaza late last year. The expansive and experimental effort is being used to conduct mass surveillance there, collecting and cataloging the faces of Palestinians without their knowledge or consent, according to Israeli intelligence officials, military officers and soldiers.

The technology was initially used in Gaza to search for Israelis who were taken hostage by Hamas during the October 7 cross-border raids, intelligence officials said. After Israel embarked on a ground offensive In Gaza, he increasingly turned to the program to root out anyone with ties to Hamas or other militant groups. The technology sometimes mistakenly marked civilians as wanted Hamas militants, one official said.

The facial recognition program, run by Israel's military intelligence unit, including the cyber intelligence division. Unit 8200, is based on technology from Corsight, a private Israeli company, four intelligence officials said. It also uses Google Photos, they said. Combined, the technologies allow Israel to distinguish faces in crowds and grainy drone images.

Three of the people with knowledge of the program said they were speaking out out of fear that it was a misuse of time and resources by Israel.

An Israeli army spokesman declined to comment on the activity in Gaza, but said the army “conducts necessary security and intelligence operations, while making significant efforts to minimize harm to the uninvolved population.” He added: “Naturally, we cannot refer to operational and intelligence capabilities in this context.”

Facial recognition technology has spread throughout the world in recent years, driven by increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence systems. Although some countries use technology to make air travel easierChina and Russia have deployed the technology against minority groups and to suppress dissent. Israel's use of facial recognition in Gaza stands out as an application of the technology in war.

Matt Mahmoudi, a researcher at Amnesty International, said Israel's use of facial recognition was worrying because it could lead to “a complete dehumanization of Palestinians” where they were not considered individuals. He added that Israeli soldiers were unlikely to question the technology when it identified a person as part of a militant group, even though the technology makes mistakes.

Israel previously used facial recognition in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to an Amnesty report last yearbut the effort in Gaza goes further.

In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israelis have a local facial recognition system called Blue Wolf, according to the Amnesty report. At checkpoints in West Bank cities such as Hebron, Palestinians are scanned by high-resolution cameras before they are allowed to pass. Soldiers also use smartphone apps to scan Palestinians' faces and add them to a database, the report said.

In Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005, no facial recognition technology existed. Instead, Hamas surveillance in Gaza was carried out by tapping phone lines, interrogating Palestinian prisoners, collecting drone footage, gaining access to private social media accounts and hacking into telecommunications systems, Israeli intelligence officials said.

After October 7, Israeli intelligence officers from Unit 8200 turned to such surveillance in search of information about Hamas gunmen who violated Israel's borders. The unit also reviewed footage of the attacks taken by security cameras, as well as videos posted by Hamas on social media, an official said. He said the unit had been ordered to create a “target list” of Hamas members who participated in the attack.

Corsight was then hired to create a facial recognition program in Gaza, three Israeli intelligence officials said.

The Tel Aviv-based company says on its website that its technology requires less than 50 percent of a face to be visible for accurate recognition. Robert Watts, president of Corsight, aware this month on LinkedIn that facial recognition technology could work with “extreme angles, (even from drones), darkness, poor quality.”

Corsight declined to comment.

Unit 8200 personnel soon discovered that Corsight's technology had problems if the images were grainy and faces were obscured, one officer said. When the military tried to identify the bodies of Israelis killed on October 7, the technology could not always work for people whose faces had been injured. There were also false positives, or cases in which a person was wrongly identified as being associated with Hamas, the official said.

To complement Corsight's technology, Israeli officers used Google Photos, Google's free photo-sharing and storage service, three intelligence officials said. By uploading a database of known people to Google Photos, Israeli officials could use the service's photo search function to identify people.

Google's ability to match faces and identify people even with only a small part of their face visible was superior to other technologies, an official said. The military continued to use Corsight because it was customizable, officials said.

A Google spokesperson said Google Photos was a free consumer product that “does not provide identities of unknown people in photos.”

The facial recognition program in Gaza grew as Israel expanded its military offensive there. Israeli soldiers entering Gaza received cameras equipped with this technology. Soldiers also set up checkpoints along the main roads that Palestinians used to flee areas of intense fighting, with cameras scanning faces.

The goals of the program were to search for Israeli hostages, as well as Hamas fighters who could be detained for interrogation, Israeli intelligence officials said.

The guidelines on who to detain were intentionally broad, one said. Palestinian prisoners were asked to name people in their communities who they believed were part of Hamas. Israel would then seek out those people, hoping they would provide more intelligence.

Abu Toha, the Palestinian poet, was named a Hamas agent by someone in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahia, where he lived with his family, Israeli intelligence officials said. Officials said there was no specific intelligence information attached to his file that would explain a connection to Hamas.

In an interview, Mr. Abu Toha, who wrote “Things You Can Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza,” yeshelp, it has no connection with Hamas.

When he and his family were detained at the military checkpoint on Nov. 19 while trying to leave for Egypt, he said he had not shown any identification when asked to leave the crowd.

After he was handcuffed and taken to sit under a tent with several dozen men, he overheard someone say that the Israeli army had used “new technology” on the group. After 30 minutes, the Israeli soldiers called him by his full legal name.

Mr. Abu Toha said he was beaten and interrogated in an Israeli detention center for two days before being returned to Gaza without explanation. He wrote about your experience at The New Yorker, where he is a contributor. He attributed his release to a campaign led by journalists from The New Yorker and other publications.

After his release, Israeli soldiers told him that his interrogation had been a “mistake,” he said.

In a statement at the time, the Israeli military said Abu Toha was questioned due to “intelligence indicating a series of interactions between various civilians and terrorist organizations within the Gaza Strip.”

Abu Toha, who is now in Cairo with his family, said he was not aware of any facial recognition program in Gaza.

“I didn't know Israel was capturing or recording my face,” he said. But Israel “has been watching us for years from the sky with its drones. They've been watching us gardening, going to school, and kissing our wives. “I feel like I’ve been watched for a long time.”

Kashmir Hill contributed with reports.

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