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Israel using previously-unreported facial recognition system to 'automate apartheid' against Palestinians - new report

© Amnesty International

‘Red Wolf’ technology in Hebron automatically scans Palestinians’ faces at checkpoints

Chinese and Dutch companies implicated in mass surveillance systems which are incompatible with human rights 

‘They can tell you that your name is not in the database, as simple as that, and then you’re not allowed to pass through [to] your house’ - Eyad, Hebron resident

‘The Israeli authorities are using sophisticated surveillance tools to supercharge segregation and automate apartheid against Palestinians’ - Agnès Callamard

The Israeli authorities are using a previously-unreported experimental facial recognition system known as Red Wolf to track Palestinians and automate harsh restrictions on their freedom of movement, Amnesty International said today.

In a new 81-page report, Automated Apartheid, Amnesty documents how Red Wolf is part of an ever-growing surveillance network which is entrenching the Israeli government’s control over Palestinians which amounts to a system of apartheid

Red Wolf is deployed at military checkpoints in the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank where it scans Palestinians’ faces and adds them to vast surveillance databases without their consent (see below for further details). 

Amnesty even documented, through the testimony provided by former military personnel, how the surveillance of Palestinians has become gamified. For example, two soldiers stationed in Hebron in 2020 said another system - known as Blue Wolf, operated through an app - generating rankings based on the number of Palestinians registered, with Israeli commanders giving prizes to the battalion with the highest score. In this way, Israeli soldiers are incentivised to keep Palestinians under constant observation.

Amnesty has also documented how Israel’s use of facial recognition technology against Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem has increased, especially in the wake of protests in areas around illegal settlements.

In both Hebron and occupied East Jerusalem, facial recognition technology supports a dense network of CCTV cameras to keep Palestinians under near-constant observation. Automated Apartheid shows how this surveillance is part of a deliberate attempt by Israeli authorities to create a hostile and coercive environment for Palestinians with the aim of minimising their presence in strategic areas. 

Amnesty is calling on Israeli authorities to end the mass and targeted surveillance of Palestinians and lift the arbitrary restrictions imposed on Palestinians’ freedom of movement across the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as necessary steps towards dismantling apartheid.

Amnesty has recently documented human rights risks linked to facial recognition technology in India and the USA, as part of its Ban the Scan campaign, and Amnesty is calling for a global ban on the development, sale and use of facial recognition technology for surveillance purposes.

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said: 

“The Israeli authorities are using sophisticated surveillance tools to supercharge segregation and automate apartheid against Palestinians. 

“In the H2 area of Hebron, we documented how a new facial recognition system called Red Wolf is reinforcing draconian restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement, using illegitimately-acquired biometric data to monitor and control Palestinians’ movements around the city.

“In addition to the constant threat of excessive physical force and arbitrary arrest, Palestinians must now contend with the risk of being tracked by an algorithm, or barred from entering their own neighbourhoods based on information stored in discriminatory surveillance databases. 

“This is the latest illustration of why facial recognition technology, when used for surveillance, is incompatible with human rights.”

Red Wolf system

Amnesty’s Automated Apartheid reveals the existence of a previously unreported Israeli military facial recognition system called Red Wolf, which is deployed at checkpoints in Hebron. There is strong evidence to suggest that Red Wolf is linked to two other military-run surveillance systems: Wolf Pack and Blue Wolf. Wolf Pack is a vast database containing all available information on Palestinians from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including places of residence, family members and whether they are wanted for questioning by the Israeli authorities. Blue Wolf is an app which Israeli forces can access via smartphones and tablets, and which can instantly pull up information stored in the Wolf Pack database. 

When a Palestinian goes through a checkpoint at which Red Wolf is operating, their face is scanned without their knowledge or consent and compared with biometric entries in databases which exclusively contain information about Palestinians. Red Wolf uses this data to determine whether an individual can pass a checkpoint and automatically biometrically enrols any new face it scans. If no entry exists for an individual, they will be denied passage. Red Wolf could also deny entry based on other information stored on Palestinian profiles, for example if an individual is wanted for questioning or arrest.  

Red Wolf expands its database of Palestinian faces over time. In testimony given to Breaking the Silence, an Israeli commander stationed in Hebron said that soldiers are tasked with training and optimising Red Wolf’s facial recognition algorithm so it can start recognising faces without human intervention.

Amnesty also documented how Israel’s AI-powered facial recognition systems are supported by a vast physical infrastructure of surveillance hardware. 

Hebron has been described by the Israeli military as a “smart city”. The reality is streets full of surveillance cameras, which are mounted on the sides of buildings, lampposts, surveillance towers and rooftops, compounding the already drastic segregation that exists in Hebron. For Palestinians, omnipresent surveillance has exacerbated the sense that some areas of H2 are off-limits for them - even areas which are just metres away from their homes.

The Tel Rumeida neighbourhood is close to the heavily-equipped Checkpoint 56, which is mounted with at least 24 audio-visual surveillance devices and other sensors. Eyad, a resident of Tel Rumeida, described how the installation of Checkpoint 56 on the once-thriving Shuhada Street, combined with a heavy military presence and nearly 30 years of movement restrictions and forced closures of Palestinian businesses, has “killed all forms of social life”. 

Eyad also described how Israeli soldiers seem to rely on the facial recognition system, which Amnesty identified as Red Wolf, to bar residents from returning to their homes: 

“They [Israeli soldiers] can tell you that your name is not in the database, as simple as that, and then you’re not allowed to pass through [to] your house.”

Mabat 2000

In occupied East Jerusalem, Israel operates a network of thousands of CCTV cameras across the Old City known as Mabat 2000. Since 2017, the Israeli authorities have been upgrading this system to enhance its facial recognition capabilities and give themselves unprecedented powers of surveillance. Amnesty mapped CCTV cameras across an area of ten square-kilometres in occupied East Jerusalem, including the Old City and Sheikh Jarrah, and found the presence of one to two CCTV cameras every five metres. The Israeli authorities have targeted sites of cultural and political significance with new surveillance tools, such as the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City, which has long been a place for Palestinians to meet and hold protests. 

The impact of these numerous cameras is acutely felt by Palestinians, as one resident, Neda, explained: 

“I’m being watched the whole time… it gives me a really bad feeling everywhere in the street. Every time I see a camera, I feel anxious. Like you are always being treated as if you are a target.” 

This mass surveillance violates the rights to privacy, equality and non-discrimination. It also has a chilling effect on the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly by deterring Palestinians from protesting, exacerbating a climate of fear and repression. 

As one Palestinian journalist told Amnesty:

“Those who demonstrate know that, even if they don’t get detained on the spot, their faces will be captured by the cameras and they can be arrested later.” 

In the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighbourhoods, the number of CCTV cameras increased significantly in the wake of 2021 protests against the forced eviction of Palestinian families to make way for settlers. Amnesty has also documented how the continued expansion of surveillance in occupied East Jerusalem, an illegally annexed city, digitally cements Israel’s domain of control and helps advance the unlawful security objectives of illegal settlers. Not only does surveillance deter protests against settlement expansion, but the Israeli authorities and settlers have also installed additional surveillance infrastructure around areas near illegal settlements. 

Chinese and Dutch companies

Amnesty is unable to say with certainty which companies are providing Israeli authorities with facial recognition software. However, researchers identified the vendors of several cameras they found in occupied East Jerusalem, documenting high-resolution CCTV cameras made by the Chinese company Hikvision installed in residential areas and mounted to military infrastructure. Some of these models, according to Hikvision’s own marketing, can plug into external facial recognition software. Amnesty also identified cameras made by a Dutch company called TKH Security in public spaces and attached to police infrastructure.

Amnesty wrote to both companies expressing concerns about the risk of their products being used with the Mabat 2000 system to conduct facial recognition targeted at Palestinians and connected to human rights abuses. Amnesty also requested information about the companies’ due diligence processes. Both companies were unable to describe how they had fulfilled, or were currently fulfilling, their human rights responsibilities for these high-risk sales. According to TKH Security’s website, in 2017 an Israeli company called Mal-Tech Technological Solutions became its official distributor for the Israeli market. In its response to Amnesty, TKH Security said it “has not done any business with Mal-Tech in the past few years” and said it does not currently have a direct business relationship with the Israeli security forces. TKH Security did not respond to Amnesty’s further requests for clarification. Hikvision did not respond to any of Amnesty’s questions. 

Agnès Callamard added:

“Hikvision and TKH Security must commit to ensuring that their technologies are not being used to maintain or further entrench Israel’s system of apartheid against Palestinians. They must stop supplying any technologies which are used by Israeli authorities to maintain illegal settlements - which are war crimes under international law - and ensure they only sell to human rights-compliant customers.”

Focus of report: Hebron and East Jerusalem

Automated Apartheid focuses on Hebron and East Jerusalem, the only cities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories with Israeli settlements inside their bounds. The report is based on evidence gathered during 2022, including through interviews with Palestinian residents, analysis of open-source material, and testimony from current and former Israeli military personnel provided by the Israeli group Breaking the Silence.

Under a 1997 agreement between the Israeli authorities and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Hebron was divided into two sections, known as H1 and H2. H1, which constitutes 80% of the city, is administered by the Palestinian authorities, while Israel maintains full control over H2, which includes the Old City. Some 33,000 Palestinians live in H2, along with around 800 Israeli settlers who reside illegally across at least seven settlement enclaves. Palestinian residents of H2 are subjected to draconian movement restrictions. They are barred from accessing certain roads, which are open only to Israeli settlers, and a network of military checkpoints and other obstructions severely impedes their daily lives. Israeli settlers in Hebron travel on different roads to Palestinians and are not required to use checkpoints.  


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Automated Apartheid