Technically-activated control of a persecuted population. Offensive facial recognition. Severe restrictions on movement. Peaceful disagreement termed “terrorism”.
For many readers, the scenario is reminiscent of China’s mass human rights abuses against millions of Uighurs and other Turkish Muslims. Yet this description would also apply to Israel’s treatment of millions of Palestinians living under occupation.
The Israeli military allegedly uses facial recognition to build a massive database of personal information about Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, which includes their photos, family history and education, and assigns them a security rating. When soldiers, equipped with an official Blue Wolf app smartphone, scan a Palestinian’s face, the app shows yellow, red or green to indicate whether the person should be detained or allowed to pass.
For one of us – a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch – the Israeli Blue Wolf system is terribly familiar. A similar mass surveillance system is used by the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang, called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), which acts as the “brain” behind various sensory systems throughout the region. IJOP is also a large data system that detects “abnormality” as arbitrarily defined by the authorities.
People whose phones suddenly go “offline” or those who use too much electricity – everyday, legal behavior – are automatically singled out by the IJOP for police interrogations and some of them are later detained for “political education” and put in jail.
In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to China’s use and export of mass surveillance. But Chinese companies are not alone. Surveillance technologies have spread worldwide in a legal and regulatory vacuum.
Governments have used the spyware Pegasus, developed by Israel-based company NSO Group, to hack devices in 45 countries, including those of journalists, dissidents and human rights activists. Pegasus turns an infected device into a portable surveillance tool by gaining access to the phone’s camera, microphone and text messages.
Earlier this month, Pegasus was discovered on the phones of six Palestinian human rights activists – three of whom worked for civil society groups that wrongly identified Israel as “terrorist organizations” in October, effectively banning them. Also in Xinjiang, the authorities justify their crimes against humanity against the region’s minority residents as a “strike-hard campaign” against terrorism.
In both Xinjiang and the Palestinian-Israeli context, surveillance burns serious rights violations by enabling the authorities to quickly identify and neutralize peaceful differences, and to exercise invasive control over a broad population. The Xinjiang authorities would have found it difficult to maintain their granular, 24-hour control of all 12 million Uighurs – to police their minds, the way they dress, with whom they associate – without the help of surveillance technology. Oversight helps Israel, a self-proclaimed Jewish state, maintain its dominance over Palestine, a component of its crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.
In a recent article on the Blue Wolf application and the impact of surveillance, the Washington Post quoted a Palestinian living in the West Bank as saying, “We no longer feel comfortable socializing because cameras are always filming us. ” This sentiment reflects what a Turkish Muslim woman interviewed by Human Rights Watch said in a 2018 report on the corrosive effect of ubiquitous surveillance: “People did not visit each other. … If someone – say another old lady – crosses the street to talk to me, I will run away. ” The idea that this dystopian reality is taking hold among Palestinian communities is chilling.
International human rights laws require that governments’ collection, use, and storage of personal data meet the standards of legality, proportionality, and necessity. This means that there must be clear and public legal frameworks that will prevent a government from collecting, analyzing, using and storing personal data that is proportionate to addressing a goal that is legitimate and that cannot be achieved by use less invasive measures. Such a framework should also require that supervision be subject to authorization and supervision by an independent body.
Governments must enact their own laws to ensure that any oversight they do will follow these standards. They must insist on a global moratorium on the sale, export, transfer and use of surveillance technology until adequate human rights safeguards are in place. They should also penalize companies that sell these surveillance systems that have been proven to have facilitated serious human rights violations.
The US government has placed export controls on some Chinese oversight companies, and more recently on the NSO group. But such restrictions – which cut off these companies’ access to US technology – are insufficient as these companies are based outside US jurisdiction.
It may be time for governments to sharpen their game and start considering the use of stronger measures, such as the US Magnitsky law sanctions against human rights violators.
While these measures will not end the persecution of millions of Palestinians and Uighurs, they can alleviate the oppression and perhaps just create some momentum to end the crimes against humanity that both populations face.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.