Israel uses Palestine as a lab to test surveillance tech
It was revealed late last month that the Israeli government has installed an AI-controlled gun at a military checkpoint on the busy Al-Shuhada street in the Palestinian city of Hebron. Marwa Fatafta, who is Palestinian, tweeted in response “Believe us when we say we are a surveillance testing lab in every sense of the word.”
Fatafta is the Middle East-North Africa policy manager at the digital rights group Access Now and a policy analyst at the think tank Al-Shabaka which seeks to “educate and foster public debate on Palestinian human rights and self-determination.” Coda Story spoke with her to learn more about Israel’s use of surveillance technology in Palestine. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You wrote on Twitter recently that Palestine is a surveillance testing laboratory. Could you elaborate on what you meant by that?
Most, if not all, of the surveillance technologies that are developed and exported by the Israeli authorities stem from the occupied territories. It’s either the Israeli army that has been prototyping and testing these technologies or private companies that are set up by former Israeli intelligence and military forces. Israel doesn’t acknowledge that its obligations to protect human rights under international law extend to the territories they occupy. And at the same time, they see in the occupied territories a lucrative opportunity to prototype, deploy, test and enhance all sorts of weapons and surveillance technologies.
In the last few weeks we’ve seen internet shutdowns in response to widespread protests in Iran. Despite the state of their diplomatic relations, how much do Israel and Iran learn from each other in terms of building a surveillance state?
I think regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, authoritarian governments and oppressive regimes use the same tactics. They all have the same oppressive handbook. They know that flow of information is important. It’s important for organizing. It’s important for documentation, it’s important for accountability. And that’s why the Internet becomes an enemy of the state. For them, the moment there are protests or dissent on the ground, the number one rule is to stop the information from flowing, whether it be reporting to Meta to take down content as the Israeli government does, or shutting down the Internet or throttling the services like the Iranian regime does.
What can people do to resist?
For one, documentation. I think the bigger point here, though, is that it is not up to ordinary citizens. It is actually up to the international community to hold the Israeli government accountable for all of these violations. Often governments, especially the European governments and the U.S., when it comes to surveillance technologies, they don’t see the supply chain. They don’t understand that when technology is being used on an oppressed, occupied community it will soon be deployed somewhere else. And I think it’s important for people not only in Palestine but elsewhere, to understand how surveillance supply chains work, especially in the Palestinian context. Of course, Palestinians on the ground can protest. But we need to understand what’s driving this economy. It’s the demand from abroad and there are of course happy suppliers.
IN GLOBAL NEWS:
Meta is in the spotlight again for its role in inciting ethnic violence in Myanmar. According to a damning new report from Amnesty International, Meta “proactively amplified and promoted content” on Facebook, which helped to incite widespread violence against Rohingya Muslims in 2017. The investigation claims that the company knew or should have known that Facebook’s algorithms were amplifying the dissemination of harmful anti-Rohingya hate speech and disinformation in Myanmar, but failed to act, prioritizing profit over safety. In Myanmar Facebook is the internet and “Facebook’s algorithms were intensifying a storm of hatred against the Rohingya which contributed to real-world violence,” said Agnes Callamard, Amnesty’s Secretary General. “The company now has a responsibility to provide reparations to all those who suffered the violent consequences of their reckless actions.” As we recently reported, Rohingya refugees sued Facebook for $150 billion for allegedly amplifying hate speech that led directly to violence.
Software meant to monitor students at risk of harming themselves or others has been used to target student protesters on U.S. college campuses. The company, Social Sentinel, has provided dozens of colleges nationwide with technology marketed to promote school safety by monitoring the social media accounts of students at risk of harming themselves or others. However, an investigation from The Dallas Morning News found that some colleges that bought the service used it to surveil student protesters. “Despite publicly saying its service was not a surveillance tool, Social Sentinel representatives promoted the tool to universities for “mitigating” and “forestalling” protests. The documents also show the company has been moving in a new and potentially more invasive direction — allowing schools to monitor student emails on university accounts,” the paper found. For more, you can check out our past reporting exploring how the pandemic led to an explosion of dubious ed-tech solutions.
Yesterday, Uganda’s highest court held its first hearing in a legal challenge to the country’s national digital ID system. The lawsuit, filed by a coalition of human rights groups, claims the country’s controversial digital ID scheme has excluded women and the elderly from accessing public health and government services. The government’s national identity card, known as the Ndaga Muntu, is mandatory to vote, open a bank account, get health care, travel domestically, and access an array of other government services. The lawsuit argues that millions of people — primarily women and senior citizens — are systematically being excluded from accessing crucial social support because they don’t have the required digital ID card. We’ve covered the rise of digital ID schemes across the region. For more, you can read our coverage of biometric identification systems in Ghana and Kenya.
This week’s newsletter is curated by Coda’s staff reporter Erica Hellerstein. Rebekah Robinson and Liam Scott contributed to this edition.