Tech giant Microsoft announced over the weekend that it hired former US attorney general Eric Holder to investigate the practices of Israeli facial recognition startup AnyVision and to review its investment in the company.
In June 2019, Microsoft’s venture fund M12 was one of several investors to participate in a $74 million funding round in AnyVision.
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On Friday, Microsoft said Holder and a team of prosecutors would probe whether the Israeli company’s applications of face, body, and object-recognition comply with its ethical principles against facial recognition for mass surveillance, the Associated Press reported.
The probe came in the wake of an October report by NBC News claiming that the Israeli military uses AnyVision’s technology to conduct mass surveillance of Palestinians living in the West Bank. A July report in Haaretz-TheMarker said the Israeli military uses two systems by AnyVision; one installed at 27 crossings and checkpoints to improve inspection procedures, and another “much more confidential” system that involves “cameras deep inside the West Bank [that] try to spot and monitor potential Palestinian assailants.”
The NBC News report cited a source that said the latter project was nicknamed “Google Ayosh,” “where ‘Ayosh” refers to the occupied Palestinian territories and ‘Google’ denotes the technology’s ability to search for people.”
Civil liberties advocates have criticized mass surveillance methods and governments that employ such tools, saying they violate privacy rights.
“The basic premise of a free society is that you shouldn’t be subject to tracking by the government without suspicion of wrongdoing. You are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Shankar Narayan, technology and liberty project director at the American Civil Liberties Union, told NBC News in October. “The widespread use of face surveillance flips the premise of freedom on its head and you start becoming a society where everyone is tracked no matter what they do all the time.”
AnyVision said in response to the NBC report that, “Many countries and organizations face a diverse set of threats, whether it is keeping students and teachers safe in schools, facilitating the movement of individuals in and out of everyday buildings, and other situations where innocents could face risk. Our fundamental mission is to help keep all people safe with a best-in-class technology offering, wherever that threat may originate.”
AnyVision was founded in 2014 by Eylon Etshtein, who serves as CEO, and Prof. Neil Robertson, CTO. It has over 200 employees worldwide with offices in Tel Aviv, New York, Mexico, London, and Singapore, and a dedicated team of over 30 PhDs in Belfast focused solely on computer vision research.
Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo sits on the advisory board.
AnyVision’s tech can be deployed on most types of cameras and does not require sophisticated sensors.
Etshtein told TechCrunch in 2018 he believes the company’s solution is “an improvement over existing video surveillance technologies in terms of protecting the public’s privacy.”
“Today, the video management systems basically record everything and you can see individuals faces, you can see everything,” he said. “Once our system is installed it pixelates all the faces in the stream automatically, even the operator in the control center cannot see your face because the mathematical models just represent the persons of interest.”