Technical control of the persecuted population. Abuse of face recognition. Strictly restrict movement. Put peaceful dissent under the stigma of “terrorism”.
For many readers, this scene is reminiscent of China’s massive violations of the human rights of millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. However, this description also applies to Israel’s treatment of millions of Palestinians living under occupation.
According to reports, the Israeli military is using facial recognition technology to build a huge personal information database of Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank, including their photos, family history and education, and assigning them security levels. When soldiers equipped with the official smartphone Blue Wolf app scan the face of a Palestinian, the app will display yellow, red or green to indicate whether the person should be detained or allowed to pass.
For one of us-a researcher on China at Human Rights Watch-the Israeli Blue Wolf system is very familiar. The Chinese authorities use a similar large-scale surveillance system in Xinjiang, called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), which acts as the “brain” behind various sensor systems throughout the region. IJOP is also a big data system that detects “abnormalities” arbitrarily defined by the authorities.
People who suddenly “dropped” their mobile phones or used too much electricity—daily, legal behavior—will be automatically selected by IJOP for police interrogation. Some of them were later detained and imprisoned for “political education”.
In recent years, China’s use and export of large-scale surveillance has received increasing attention. But Chinese companies are not alone. Surveillance technology has proliferated globally in a legal and regulatory vacuum.
The government has used the spyware Pegasus developed by the Israeli company NSO Group to invade equipment in 45 countries, including those of journalists, dissidents, and human rights activists. Pegasus turns the infected device into a portable monitoring tool by accessing the phone’s camera, microphone, and text messages.
Earlier this month, Pegasus was discovered in the phone calls of six Palestinian human rights activists-three of whom worked for civil society groups, which Israel mistakenly classified as a “terrorist organization” in October, effectively banning them. In Xinjiang, the authorities also justified their crimes against humanity against ethnic minority residents in the region as a “strike hard” against terrorism.
In the context of Xinjiang and Palestine-Israel, surveillance has enabled the authorities to quickly identify and eliminate peaceful dissent, and exercise intrusive control over the general public, thus contributing to serious rights violations. Without the help of surveillance technology, Xinjiang authorities would find it difficult to maintain fine-grained, round-the-clock control over all 12 million Uyghurs—regulating their thoughts, the way they dress, and the people they interact with. Surveillance helps Israel, a country that calls itself a Jewish state, maintain its rule over the Palestinians, which is part of its apartheid and persecution of crimes against humanity.
In a recent article on the impact of the Blue Wolf app and surveillance, the Washington Post quoted a Palestinian living in the West Bank as saying: “We no longer feel comfortable socializing because the cameras are always shooting us.” This sentiment reflects a Turkic Muslim woman interviewed by Human Rights Watch in a 2018 report about the corrosive effects of ubiquitous surveillance: “People don’t visit each other. …If someone—say, , Another old lady—cross the street and talk to me, and I will run away.” The idea that this dystopian reality dominates the Palestinian community is chilling.
International human rights law requires the government to collect, use, and store personal data in compliance with the standards of legality, proportionality, and necessity. This means that there should be a clear public legal framework to prevent the government from collecting, analyzing, using, and storing personal data beyond the level commensurate with the achievement of a legitimate goal that cannot be achieved through the use of less intrusive measures. Such a framework should also require that supervision be authorized and supervised by an independent agency.
The government should pass its own laws to ensure that any surveillance they conduct follows these standards. They should promote a global suspension of the sale, export, transfer, and use of surveillance technology until appropriate human rights safeguards are in place. They should also punish companies that sell these surveillance systems that have proven to contribute to serious human rights violations.
The US government has imposed export controls on some Chinese surveillance companies, and recently also imposed export controls on the NSO Group. But this restriction—cutting off these companies’ access to American technology—is not enough because these companies are outside the jurisdiction of the United States.
It may be time for the government to step up its actions and begin to consider stronger measures, such as the US-style Magnitsky Act sanctions against human rights violators.
Although these measures will not end the persecution of millions of Palestinians and Uighurs, they may reduce repression and may create some momentum to end the crimes against humanity faced by these two populations.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.