Skip to main content

How AI, big tech, and spyware power Israel's occupation

Automated Apartheid: How Israel's occupation is powered by big tech, AI, and spyware
7 min read
03 July, 2023
In-depth: Israel's military occupation has become a laboratory for advanced surveillance systems, artificial intelligence, and spyware technology developed by Western corporations and Israel's army.

“AI was a force multiplier,” boasted Israeli officials after Operation Guardian of the Walls, an 11-day milliary attack on Gaza in 2021 which displaced over 91,000 Palestinians and left over 260 dead.

Almost two years later, foreign aid, big tech, and new advanced surveillance systems have quite literally laid the groundwork for what Amnesty International calls an ‘Automated Apartheid’, one that is powered by Western corporations like Google and Amazon on the outside, and entrenched by spyware and AI on the inside.

A new era: Occupation under automation

AI technology combined with a new far-right government have seen policies of repression in Israel’s military occupation escalate at an unprecedented rate over the last few years. 

“Autonomous weapon systems rely on sensor processing rather than human input, by selecting and engaging a target,” Omar Shakir the Israel-Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch, told The New Arab. “These technologies make it easier to maintain and further entrench apartheid.”

Since the beginning of 2023, the Israeli army has killed over 170 Palestinians, including at least 30 children. More than 290 Palestinian-owned buildings across the West Bank and East Jerusalem have been demolished or forcibly seized, displacing over 400 people and affecting the livelihoods or access to services of over 11,000 others.

In a recent 82-page comprehensive report on the use of technology in Israel’s military occupation, Amnesty International detailed how many of these atrocities are made possible by automated weapons, spyware, and unauthorised biometric systems, calling them crimes against humanity.

“Spyware hacks into devices (phones or computers) without alerting the owner. The hackers open the microphone and camera on the device remotely to spy on the surroundings, and download all of the data on the device,” Dr Shir Hever, the military embargo coordinator for the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BDSNC), told The New Arab

Pegasus spyware, the specific system used by the Israeli military, is not only used to breach people’s privacy by filing and scanning data but is also utilised to “obtain information even from encrypted messaging services, and plant false evidence into the device without leaving a trace,” Dr Hever added.   

Most recently, Israel’s military has come under fire for their ‘Wolf Pack’ facial recognition systems

Nadim Nashif, the General Director and Co-Founder of 7amleh - The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, explained how ‘Wolf Pack’ is used to facilitate Israel’s occupation.

“It's an extensive predatory surveillance database system that contains profiles of nearly every Palestinian in the occupied West Bank, including photographs, family histories, education, and security ratings,” he said.

Live Story

There are countless variations of the program - Red Wolf, Blue Wolf, and White Wolf - which all take information from Palestinians without consent. 

Blue Wolf has a colour-coded system that instructs soldiers to either arrest the individual or let them pass through. “Israeli soldiers compete to capture the highest number of pictures in the app,” Nashif explained.

The updated version of Blue Wolf, Red Wolf is now being used in illegal checkpoints in Hebron. “If the system cannot locate the individual’s image, it will register it on the databases, and they will be often denied crossing,” Nashif added.

A lesser-known version, White Wolf, is used on Palestinian workers who have jobs in illegal settlements. It has the same tracking, harassment, and biometric features as the other two.

The emergence of ‘Smart Cities’ in Israel has also allowed these tools to be deployed to track and surveil Palestinians under the disguise of ‘tech advancement’.

Israel's military has come under fire for their 'Wolf Pack' facial recognition systems. [Getty]

“Places like Jerusalem have Smart City technology, that uses cameras, facial recognition, and advanced technological systems that are used at the entries of checkpoints,” said Shakir.

With cameras pointing into homes and scanning Palestinians at checkpoints and as they go about their everyday lives, reality under Israeli occupation is becoming increasingly dystopian.

“Surveillance impacts our day-to-day activities and behaviours, adding to existing constraints to freedom of movement. We as Palestinians think twice before logging into the internet, using our phones to call a loved one, or meeting with friends in a public space. We are cautious with every move we make, every word we say,” Nashif explained. 

“Residents in Hebron have become accustomed to the presence of drones flying over the city,” he added. “Data obtained by facial recognition surveillance technology will be used to supply information to an AI-controlled machine gun equipped with ready-to-fire stun grenades and sponge-tipped bullets,” explaining how enforcing the occupation has become easier to sustain via technology.

In some cases, data gathered by surveillance methods are used for Israel’s policy of ‘targeted assassinations,’ which are carried without legal processes.

“Drones, remote-controlled vehicles in the air (UAV), water or land which usually carry surveillance equipment (mostly cameras), are now being used as armed drones to commit assassinations,” Dr Hever elaborated. 

“It’s another form of apartheid. Privacy is only a privilege for Jewish Israeli citizens, but not for the Indigenous population of Palestine,” he said.

Western corporations: Buying and selling apartheid

While this technology is developed by the Israeli military internally, the means to do so often comes from foreign aid, notably Western corporations.

“None of the technologies discussed here (drones, facial recognition, databases, etc.) is an Israeli invention,” Dr Hever said.

“Western or transnational corporations have a long history of being complicit in and profiting off Israel’s apartheid,” added Apoorva G, the Asia Pacific campaigns coordinator for the BNC. 

Live Story

From sports companies like Puma, Big Oil corporations like Chevron, and even infrastructure companies, like Siemens and HD Hyundai, “they (Big Tech) see oppression of Palestinians as a profitable project, which is related to the economic and environmental damage caused worldwide,” Apoorva added.

A recent, more concerning contract between big tech and Israel is Amazon’s and Google’s Project Nimbus - a $1.2 billion agreement that provides cloud services to the Israeli army.

“Military attacks depend on servers and digital communication, surveillance entirely relies on such technology, databases storing information on Palestinian land records, population databases – they all require cloud servers. All of this is now going to be provided by Google and Amazon. And this project is already underway,” Apoorva told The New Arab

Surveillance technology and facial recognition software are used at Israel's military checkpoints in the occupied Palestinian territory. [Getty]

Since 2021, workers at these corporations and human rights organisations have been organising against the contract through the #NoTechForAparthied movement, but their efforts have not led to substantial change.

Sometimes these corporations themselves create weapons and export them to Israeli intelligence, creating a buy-and-sell version of occupation. Sophia Goodfriend, a PhD Candidate at Duke University Anthropology examining the ethics and impact of new surveillance technologies, explains how the tech and defence industries intersect.

“The IDF has a long history of outsourcing this R and D (research and development) to private start-ups, largely staffed by veterans of Israeli intelligence units,” she said, citing companies like Oosto (formerly AnyVision), the NSO Group, and Black Cube, who have all been contracted to provide technology and services to Israel's military forces.

Global violence and repression

The fact that these systems are imported, bought, or sold has led to fears among researchers and activists about their global reach and impact on human rights.

“These technologies are promoted by private Israeli arms companies who are selling them around the world, even in violation of military embargos,” Dr Hever elaborated. “Just recently it was revealed that Israeli arms companies sell lethal weapons to the Junta in Myanmar,” despite the international arms embargo over the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Rohingya people

“We know this because this is the technology which the Israeli arms companies are putting up for sale with the slogan ‘battle-tested’,” adds Apoorva. 

The development of AI technology surveillance in oppressive regimes will make these situations more volatile, especially when sold to existing military and security hierarchies.

“The more sophisticated the surveillance mechanisms, the greater their impact in terms of violence and repression is likely to be,” Nashif said. “The use and abuse of surveillance technologies have led to disproportionate profiling, policing, and the criminalisation of racialised groups worldwide. Palestinians are no exception to these repressive practices.”

The global market for autonomous military weapons is also increasing as more and more of these systems get tested on Palestinians. “These are global trends, not in just Israel, countries like India, Russia, and the UK, the US are heavily investing in the military application of AI,” Shakir says, noting that Israel is one of the top exporters of such weaponry.

As the world becomes increasingly automated, digital rights are at the forefront of conversations within human rights organisations. “AI technology, which is never neutral, will be fed with/taught past wrong decisions, reinforcing the bias against racialised communities,” Nashif said.

Aina Marzia is an Independent Journalist based in El Paso, Texas. Her work has been seen in The Nation, The Daily Beast, Ms. Magazine, Insider, Teen Vogue, NPR, i_D, and more. When she is not writing Aina organises with the National Student Press Law Center, ACLU, and the UCLA Center for Storytellers and Scholars 

Follow her on Twitter: @ainamarzia_