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Microsoft divests from Israeli facial-recognition startup accused of West Bank surveillance programme

AnyVision's technology is installed at West Bank checkpoints [Getty]

Date of publication: 28 March, 2020

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The tech giant will pull its investments from Israeli startup AnyVision over worries that it cannot exercise ethical oversight over the controversial facial recognition technology.
Microsoft announced on Friday it is pulling its investments from a facial-recognition startup that scans faces at Israeli military checkpoints in the occupied West Bank.

The tech giant hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder late last year to lead a team of lawyers to audit Israeli firm AnyVision over claims the company was involved in a secretive military surveillance project.

AnyVision had announced a $74 million investment in June from a group including Microsoft's venture capital arm.

The firm attracted public scruinty as the Israeli military installed face scanners at border crossing where Palestinians enter Israel from the West Bank.

Investigations by NBC and Haaretz alleged that the company's controversial technology was not only used at security checkpoints but across the occupied territory as part of a mass military surveillance programme. AnyVision has denied the reports.

Holder's team was asked in October to determine whether the firm complies with Microsoft's ethical principles against using facial recognition for mass surveillance.

Microsoft and AnyVision jointly announced on Friday that the audit did not find any breach of Microsoft's principles.

A statement from the Washington-based law firm Covington & Burling, where Holder works, said that available evidence "demonstrates that AnyVision's technology has not previously and does not currently power a mass surveillance program in the West Bank that has been alleged in media reports".

The law firm said the audit included a review of accounting records and a site visit to AnyVision's facilities in Holon, Israel.

Despite those findings, Microsoft also said on Friday it would divest its stake in the startup and will stop making minority investments in companies that sell facial-recognition technology.

The audit highlighted the challenges of being a minority investor in a company selling sensitive technology, Microsoft said. 

"Such investments do not generally allow for the level of oversight or control that Microsoft exercises over the use of its own technology," the technology giant explained.

AnyVision is not the only Israeli tech firm to have attracted negative attention in recent years.

Spyware company NSO Group has also been widely criticised for allegedly selling its Pegasus software to authoritarian governments across the world.

The spyware has reportedly been used to hack the phones of Saudi and Emirati dissidents, among others.

Amnesty International last year launched a legal case against the Israeli government for allowing NSO Group to export the technology to countries whose governments are widely accused of rights violations.

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