For Israel, the basic human rights of colonised Palestinians, such as the right to privacy, are irrelevant.
Earlier this year, a Palestinian friend told me that, while passing through an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers knew her location without even seeing her identity card. This was scary to hear, and it made me wonder if Israeli soldiers used facial recognition technology to identify my friend’s face and destination.
I knew there must be at least some surveillance mechanisms employed that we do not yet know about. This becomes clearer when we see Israeli soldiers taking pictures of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank — an act that is often live-streamed on social media platforms.
It did not take long before we came across a Washington Post report of the Israeli military using smartphone facial recognition software called Blue Wolf to track Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. As an incentive to build the database, Israeli soldiers competed for prizes to see which unit could take the most pictures of Palestinians. This violated basic human rights, including the right to privacy.
The database contains profiles of virtually every Palestinian in the West Bank and includes a “security rating” for each one. When soldiers use their phones to capture the image of a person, a colour flashes signifying whether the individual in question should be arrested, detained, or let free.
Across the world, this type of software is often used by authoritarian regimes to help oppress populations. There have also been debates about the legality and safety of facial recognition. The method itself can be inaccurate and misidentify individuals, which can put their life in danger. The software has been banned by several US cities, and the European Parliament called for a ban of its usage by police in public.
However, for colonial powers, basic human rights of the colonised are typically irrelevant. Hence, the new surveillance program does not come as a surprise.
Palestinians, both within and outside Palestine, already live in a tech dystopia. Colonial surveillance has been constant and aims to strip them of what remains of their privacy.
In the city of Hebron in the West Bank, the Israeli monitoring program is happening without any notification to the local population. It eliminates spaces for safe and free social gathering because the cameras are always filming.
The scale of Israeli mechanisms of control, intimidation, and surveillance that Palestinians have faced, and continue to face, is beyond the scope of any one article. That said, I will highlight two examples here: the population registry and prisons.
In both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the Palestinian population registry is fully controlled by the Israeli occupation authorities. All changes made to these records, including registration of births, marriages, divorces, deaths, and changes in address/name, require Israeli approval. Only after such approvals may the Palestinian Authority amend or issue an identity card. This in turn controls where Palestinians may live and whether they may travel to other areas in occupied Palestine.
Methods of surveillance are also present in Israeli jails. As soon as Palestinians are jailed, they are monitored as part of the Israeli technique of psychological warfare. And with advances in technology, human operators are becoming unnecessary.
Since 2003, the number of Israeli jailers has been continuously reduced, having been replaced with cameras. The manually operated door locks in jails have been replaced with electronic systems, with one prison officer in a central monitoring room to control a section of more than 100 prisoners.
Having fewer prison staff may result in further psychological violence. In solitary confinement, for example, prisoners have regularly been prohibited from leaving their prison cells to get some daylight or practise sport because there are not enough prison staff to ‘monitor them.’ This results in them staying in their prison cells for long hours — if not days — on end.
Solitary confinement itself is a form of psychological torture. It’s particularly true when prisoners are not allowed to leave their cells for long periods of time. Surveillance in these circumstances amounts to a form of subjugation and dehumanisation. It not only ensures Palestinians are constantly monitored but also prohibits them from exercising their basic rights, whether it’s seeing the sun or walking outside.
In colonial contexts across all temporalities and geographies, the coloniser will not only try to oppress and dehumanise the colonised but will also treat them as ‘controlled subjects.’ The coloniser will ensure their rights are curtailed and their most intimate details, pictures and whereabouts are known.
Colonisation means no privacy. It means invading your most intimate spaces whenever and wherever the coloniser wishes.
Israeli security and surveillance experts enforce politics of fear, and in so doing create a hostile and an aggressive program that enables the colonial order to justify its continued violence against the colonised.
If the international community does not challenge such ideologies, they become complicit in continued violence and failing to hold those responsible to account. In doing so, they obstruct true justice and genuine confrontation of power.
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