Since the start of the call for a World without Walls in 2018, endorsed now by over 400 movements from across the globe, we have engaged many diverse reflections and joint actions against walls of injustices with people from all continents.
In 2020, we have started reflections around the concept of ‘digital walls’ and built a dialogue between Palestinian and Palestine solidarity activism and organizations, activists, academics and movements engaged in the struggle for digital rights.
The intersection between our struggles has become evident: If the digital economy is best understood as surveillance capitalism and data colonialism based on militarization, it is only consequential that Israeli apartheid and its war economy play a small but significant role within this framework.
Stopping this symbiosis is something that should be a call for all of us, not only Palestine solidarity activists.
This report is an attempt to organize the ideas, visions and analysis we have accumulated.
Over the last few decades, the spread of computing and the internet have changed our lives and have created the ‘digital economy’.
This transformation within capital produced by digitalization is built on pre-existing injustices. It perpetuates them and produces new forms of oppression, exploitation and exclusion.
We started conversations around these ‘digital walls’ – digital systems and power structures related to the digital sphere – recognizing that they share with with the physical walls the same logic of repression. They bar us access, restrict our freedom, deny democracy and let others gain control over our lives.
The ‘gates’ in the walls are as important as the walls itself. If one wants to pass, get access to the net, one has to agree to be screened, to accept the terms of those that let you pass and accept control. This produces surveillance and thought control in many different forms. Our lives and the data they produce have become a new ‘raw material’ to be extracted and profited from.
Yet, physical walls differ from digital walls. The former’s stated purpose is exclusion and our calls to tear them down respond to a deep rooted human instinct. The digital walls instead pretend inclusion, a false connectedness and participation that alienates to such an extent that we are called to demand protective shields or ‘walls’ to safeguard our privacy and salvage ourselves.
The world wide web of militarization
Digitalization and militarization are two inherently connected processes. The first impulse for the digital technology comes from the military.
The rise of the digitalization has also permitted the the rise of what Stephen Graham calls the new military urbanism. This process ensures that technological control and surveillance first experimented in the military have come to “colonize the city landscape and the spaces of everyday life”. The very basis for today’s smart cities.
Once we see militarization and the digital economy – or better: digital colonialism and surveillance capitalism – as interlocked frameworks, it comes as no surprise that Israel has a significant role to play.
Colonialism, militarization and surveillance are the very sectors Israel can claim a ‘comparative advantage’. Surveillance is de facto a central element of colonialism. Decades of settler-colonialism, apartheid and occupation have given Israel’s military-industrial complex a testing field to develop exactly what is needed for the system to work.
Just as with traditional colonialism, in digital colonialism Israel occupies a place that is subordinate but significant for its contribution to upholding the system and advancing some of its most brutal or dangerous aspects.
Both processes – the digitalization and the militarization – are not only partially time wise parallel developments. They are deeply intertwined: the first computers emerged from the II World War and the internet was developed in the Cold War by the US military. No wonder that military technology, research and industry is gaining huge profits from the start of the digital economy.
‘Digital’ capitalism has developed within the framework of an already accelerated trend of militarization of our societies. The military-industrial sector since time doesn’t only look for more wars to increase profits. It has been expanding its markets and applying its methodology and technology in all spheres of life.
The distinction between the civil sphere of peace and the military sphere of war has been eroded, especially after the adoption of the ‘war on terror’ doctrine. Citizens have become potential enemies or targets, our cities territories to be controlled and our borders turned into lines of defense.
Stephen Graham analysed this in depth in Cities under Siege: The New Military Urbanism:
“Discussions about ‘homeland security’ and the high-tech transformation of war emphasize the need to use some of those very techniques and technologies – high-tech surveillance, data-mining, computerized algorithms – to try to continually track, identify and target threatening Others within the mass of clutter presented by our rapidly urbanizing and increasingly mobile world.
The technological architectures of consumption and mobility thus merge into those used to organize and prosecute a full spectrum of political violence, from profiling to killing. And the multiple links between cities and post-Second World War military history suggest that this connection should not surprise us. As Gerfried Stocker notes, ‘there is no sphere of civilian life in which the saying “war is the father of all things” has such unchallenged validity as it does in the field of digital information technology’.”
The internet once was synonymous with freedom and equality. This idealistic view forgets the origins of the digital era.
The digital boom during the pandemic
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic is not only a health disaster. It has brought much of our lives and economies to a standstill. Millions have lost their jobs and livelihoods and the world economy is contracting dramatically. Poverty, joblessness and homelessness is rising.
Our social interactions, communications and consumption have ever more shifted online. Some have lost everything, while the digital economy is growing exponentially and reaping profits.
COVID-19 has lead to a massive redestribution of power and profits to the digital economy.
One of the world’s leading consultancy firms, Mckinsey, highlights in their report on the economic impacts of the COVID19 pandemic that the policies promoted to combat the pandemic have lead to a “tremendous growth is digitization, meaning everything from online customer service to remote working to supply-chain reinvention to the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to improve operations.”
The Just Net Coalition and ItforChange in their editorial to “The New Digital Deal” explain the reality and result of this tremendous growth succinctly:
“The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the tendencies of digital capitalism to swallow whole the resources of this planet and its people, starkly visibilizing the underlying inequality and injustice of the global economic paradigm. One can see the perverse incentives of the current paradigm play out on a planetary scale.
“Even as they close ranks against the regulatory backlash that has been confronting them, Big Tech giants have resorted to unabashed opportunism during the pandemic, consolidating their market dominance, placing themselves at the centre of trade and logistics in the short to medium term, and moving swiftly to displace public interventions in the provisioning of key social services.
“They have not been alone in leveraging the digital sphere towards greater power and influence. Nation states have used sanction-by-pandemic as a way to expand authoritarian powers, adopting more and more measures to track and surveil populations – measures that without safeguards and sunset clauses could easily weave into the governmentality of statecraft, shrinking room for dissent. […]
“The fallouts of the current crisis are not outliers of a robust system facing glitches, to be explained away as an outcome of the pandemic alone. They have to be situated within the continuities of a larger trajectory in which the digital phenomenon has contributed to social outcomes that are exclusionary, extractive, and exploitative.”
Towards a world without digital walls
Resistance is rising.
The Big Tech companies are under pressure and scrutiny by civil society. Governments in the EU and other states are discussing anti-trust laws and the idea to break up the companies. Australia and France want part of the profits platforms such as facebook are making in their countries. The first mobilization of the workers in the tech industry started alrady years ago in India and protests have now reached Microsoft and Amazon. Strikes in the Gig economy are no novelty anymore. People speak up against both, censorship and hate speech.
As the digital sphere is an ever more central part of our lives and environments and influences our realities – whether we are connected or not – the struggles for a just net, digital socialism, digital sovereignty, technologically non-aligned movements and other alternative visions become crucial.
At the bare minimum, we need to hold those building digital walls accountable to human rights and international law. It isn’t the goodwill of a handful of US based corporations that will bring the solution but pressure from those that claim their rights.
Digital walls affect us all. We risk not only loosing rights but a central space through which to fight for them.
Standing up to all those that promote these digital walls – including Israeli apartheid and its corporations – is a struggle that unites us.
How do we ensure the digital economy doesn’t fuel Israeli apartheid?
How do we ensure our efforts contribute to raising the right questions and help to dismantle not only Israeli apartheid but digital colonialism and surveillance capitalism as such?
The interconnectedness of digital colonialism, surveillance capitalism and Israeli apartheid should push us all to search for answers to these questions when building and supporting the Palestinian struggle within the framework of internationalism and intersectional solidarity.
Renata Avila from the World Wide Web Foundation reminds us:
“We don’t have to resist it [digital colonialism], we have to end it.”
Too much is at stake.
It is not only a matter of social, economic, environmental and political justice. Our very ability to build struggles is affected by it. As Sally Burch and Osvaldo Léon explain:
“Understanding and making this dichotomy [between a digital model based on exploitation and violation of democracy or one focused on social justice, rights and public interest] visible and seeking answers is not only today an important and urgent social struggle in itself, but it is also a key condition of all struggles for social justice, since increasingly, the digital terrain is where we draw on ideas, where meanings are disputed, narratives are imposed and power is built.”
It is not only about free software anymore. New ideas about the nationalization of data, collaborative and publicly funded forms of artificial intelligence, community based connectivity are being developed.
Some proposals for alternatives:
The Just Net Coalition and IT for Change have released a collection of essays “A Digital New Deal – Visions of Justice in a Post-COVID World“. Activists and scholars from across the globe and dedicated to different struggles share reflections and proposals for a Digital New Deal or a radical rethinking and restructuring of the digital economy and society.
Couldry, N. & Mejias, U. A. (2019). Making data colonialism liveable: how might data’s social order be regulated?. Internet Policy Review, 8(2).
Tierra Común: Non-Aligned Technologies Movement
Right 2 Know Campaign: People’s Techfor People’s Power – a Guide to Digital Self-Defense and Empowerment
Reports of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression:
(1) on the regulation of user-general online content, April 2018.
(2) on the adverse effect of the surveillance industry on freedom of expression, May 2019.
ACLU’s Guiding Principles of Community Control Over Police Surveillance
Outside the Digital Walls
The ‘digital divide’ describes the uneven distribution of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in a specific society and globally. The term denotes differences in both access and usage of computers and the internet. This digital divide, or wall, is based on and reinforces existing injustices.
The term ‘digital divide’ was born in the mid-90s and became a general preoccupation when the US State Department of Commerce raised the alarm.
The department that first called for a solution wasn’t a human rights institution but the ministry of commerce of the US. The digital divide was costing money and decreasing profits already in that period.
As the Association for Progressive Communication highlights, the digital divide still exists and still affects rural, women and marginalized communities most.
Yet, with digital data extracted from users having become one of the most profitable commodities, ‘bridging the digital divide’ has become a highly lucrative enterprise. Facebook’s Free Basics, Google and Microsoft see markets to be conquered through the rollout of internet connectivity infrastructure and school education projects.
Tech giants exploit human rights to causes like access and to information, and freedom of speech and assembly as a form of humanitarian imperialism that masks their colonial market dominance and allegiance to powerful states which grossly violate these very same principles.
These tech titans work closely with Israeli apartheid while it imposes its own form of digital divide.
Palestinians can have access to internet and ICT networks, if they use and pay Israeli service providers. Palestinian internet providers are being barred from building network infrastructure and have limited access to frequencies. This creates a captive market to exploit for Israel’s ICT industry, violates Palestinian digital rights and allows Israel easy access for surveillance and online repression.
Governments have realised the power of control they have gained by being able to turn off the net on entire populations. Dividing in this artificial way the population between those that have and those that don’t have access or dividing the times in ‘normal times of internet access’ and ‘times of emergency without internet access’ has become a commonly used form of repression.
Network shutdowns have become famous as tools of repression during the uprisings of the Arab Spring in 2010 and have since become adopted by ever more countries. According to a detailed study by AccessNow and the #KeepItOn Coalition the countries that use internet shutdowns are rising, so are the days these shutdowns last. Where a full shutdown is not possible, the throttling of the internet is another tool to make communication and access to information as well as the functioning of many services and businesses almost impossible. In 2019, 1706 days of internet access were disrupted by 213 internet shutdowns across 33 countries.
India’s hindutva government has imposed more internet shutdowns than any other country and has imposed the world’s second longest internet shutdown. The effects on the population in Kashmir – the target of the shutdown – have been devastating.
Xyz explains: [ask permission to publish]
“It is built on pre-existing repression and resulted in denial of access to opportunities, public goods, public information, and self-respect in the public sphere. The purpose is to throttle any form of dissent against the Indian state. They do not want mobilisation- physical or virtual- against their policies to exist and to be communicated to the world.
“The main corporations that have benefitted from the internet shutdown in Kashmir are Jio and BSNL. The government allowed these two to function effectively hence created a monopoly. Jio offered fibre net in Kashmir at predatory pricing. Jio is part of the Reliance Group in India which is one of the biggest businesses in India and also has close ties with the government. Jio is linked to the Aadhar system, a policy forcing every Indian citizen to have a government-issued ID card with biometric information in order to access basic services, and has reportedly given personal data to the government.”
Networr shutdowns are a crude form of repression of authoritarian or anti-democratic governments and the call to stop the shutdowns has reached the United Nations. In 2016, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning any form of internet shutdown and stressing the importance of “applying a comprehensive human rights-based approach when providing and expanding access to the Internet”.
To be or not to be on the database, this is the question today.
Worse than the temporary disconnect from the net, is today the exclusion from the digital database as such. Digital existence on government databases becomes ever more a pre-condition for civil, political, social and human rights.
In the richer countries, the only ones not to be digitally registered today are illegal migrants (or at least some of them). Digital dependency has grown to a point that not existing digitally is synonymous with illegality. In the global south, states are going to great length to force people into ‘digital existence’.
India and the Adhaar system mentioned as well in the context of internet shutdowns are exemplary here. Against huge opposition, the Modi government has introduced the digitalization of its population and links this digital existence to basic right to food, for example, or to allow access to vaccination.
The argument goes that such databases help to ‘plan’, ‘avoid corruption’, ‘create efficiency’. Such arguments are doubtable. What is out of question is that such systems are essential to trace, track, surveil, repress and prone to abuse of private data. Repression has just gotten a layer more in its arsenal.
Inside the Digital Walls
Digital / Surveillance Capitalism
Big Tech, is especially dominated by Big Five giants – Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook – who now dominate the global economy as the world’s richest companies.
The Big Tech isn’t about providing us with applications and services free of charge. The ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) isn’t about more comfort in a ‘smart home’. With each time we use their services and applications, we increase the flow of data to them – information about people, behaviour of people and appliances and much more. This information is then sold to make the profits. This is the basic principle of functioning of digital or data capitalism across the globe.
Shoshana Zuboff calls this system, through which “people’s lived experiences are unilaterally claimed by private companies and translated into proprietary data flows”, Surveillance Capitalism.
The maximum profits are made when data is big enough and sufficiently analysed – using Artificial Intelligence – to allow predictions on our choices and/or influence them.
Together the Big Five (Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook) dominate the market in the digital sphere and continue to expand their oligopolic position with huge investment capacity in order to further increase profits.
Since the end of the 2000s, the Big Five have been, besides the oil corporation Saudi Aramco, the most valuable public companies globally, with each having had a maximum market capitalization ranging from around $500 billion to around $2 trillion USD at various times.
Guaranteeing data flow
While communication – from the postal services to the telephone lines and TV and radio – once was a public investment and a public good and many struggles have been fought against their privatization, the net and its infrastructure is today to a large extent provided by the tech giants. The fact that the net is often still based on pre-existing state-owned infrastructure is taken for granted.
The expansion of access to internet over the last years has stopped being an onus of investment in infrastructure shouldered by states only. These corporations have understood the importance of reaching ever more users for the generation of their own profits.
One such effort to expand internet access is Facebook’s Free Basics. With this app, users can access Facebook and a number of sites selected by Facebook for free. India has lead a fierce battle against the initiative and The Center for Internet & Society argued that Free Basics “comes at a price” and that it creates “walled gardens“. The Free Basics Initiative is available in 42 countries, more than half of them in Africa. Njeri Wangari Wanjohi from Kenya and Kofi Yeboah from Ghanaian have teamed up with other researchers and activists from the Global Voices citizen media community and have tested Free Basics. Their verdict:
“Facebook claims to want to “introduce” people to the internet. But instead, they’ve built a walled garden that fails to meet local needs, and seems much better designed to collect users’ data than it is to educate, inspire or empower them.”
Microsoft and Google have developed others form to transform people into users hooked to their services. The Microsoft Partners in Learning and Google Classroom both target young people. They ensure students are used to a live with Google and Microsoft products from an early age and pass on their data. Microsoft configures its Windows operating system to spy on its users.
Tansforming data into profit
Shoshana Zuboff calls the system of our digital economy Surveillance Capitalism and explains the it as follows:
“Under surveillance capitalism, people’s lived experiences are unilaterally claimed by private companies and translated into proprietary data flows. Some of these data are used to improve products and services. The rest are considered a “behavioral surplus” and valued for their rich predictive signals. These predictive data are shipped to new-age factories of machine intelligence where they are computed into highly profitable prediction products that anticipate your current and future choices. Prediction products are then traded in what I call “behavioral futures markets,” where surveillance capitalists sell certainty to their business customers. Google’s “clickthrough rate” was the first globally successful prediction product, and its ad markets were the first to trade in human futures. Already, surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, and ever more companies across nearly every economic sector have shown an eagerness to lay bets on our future behavior.
“The competitive dynamics of these new markets reveal surveillance capitalism’s economic imperatives. First, machine intelligence demands a lot of data: economies of scale. Second, the best predictions also require varieties of data: economies of scope. This drove the extension of surplus capture beyond likes and clicks into the offline world: your jogging gait and pace; your breakfast conversation; your hunt for a parking space; your face, voice, personality, and emotions. In a third phase of competitive intensity, surveillance capitalists discovered that the most predictive data come from intervening in human action to coax, tune, herd, and modify behavior in the direction of guaranteed outcomes.”
Digital / Data Colonialism
The current process of economic and social transformation is deeply rooted in the colonial reality of our world. Far from being an equalizing power in a world in which we are all connected, it perpetuates and calibrates the dynamics and tools of ‘traditional’ colonialism to serve the same functions.
Contemporary world powers, led by the United States and its allies in the North, are reinventing colonialism in the South through what Ulises Ali Mejias and Nick Couldry call ‘data colonialism’.
“We acknowledge that this term is controversial, given the extreme physical violence and structures of racism that historical colonialism employed. However, our point is not to say that data colonialism is the same as historical colonialism, but rather to suggest that it shares the same core function: extraction, exploitation, and dispossession.
“Like classical colonialism, data colonialism violently reconfigures human relations to economic production. Things like land, water, and other natural resources were valued by native people in the precolonial era, but not in the same way that colonisers (and later, capitalists) came to value them: as private property.”
The industry isn’t really hiding this truth. Extractivist metaphores abound: The Big Tech’s main source of profits is the process of ‘data mining’ and Forbes Tech Council members love to brag that “Data is the new oil”. (They do so despite many having pointed out that it is a bit more complicated and data isn’t the new oil.)
While the US based corporations have the lion share of profits, power and data, China’s tech giants are competing in the tech world over global dominance. The Diplomat runs already headlines on the “Digital War” between the US and China, apparently the next war in line after the “Cold War” and the more obscure ‘”war on terror”.
“Users around the globe are being subjected to the norms set by US-based companies. “Code is law” in the sense that computer code constitutes privatised regulation binding all users. If YouTube wants to block, say, the sharing of content protected by fair use, there’s not much that foreign jurisdictions can do. The same goes for speech regulation, content moderation, and freedom of association: The major social networks use algorithms and employee rulebooks to censor content, shape what people see in news feeds, and determine which activist and other social groups people are allowed to form on their platforms.This means that users outside of the US are under the de facto extraterritorial governance of Silicon Valley.”
Roberta Ávila gives more examples:
“Just think of how dependent the local information ecosystem is on the whims of Silicon Valley. Here’s one example: In Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Slovakia, Serbia, Guatemala and Cambodia Facebook introduced experimental changes to the news feed that instantly reduced visits to pages of publications and organizations at the end of 2017. Nevermind volatile politics or media freedom. Users were never asked, because the relationship with Facebook is neither fair nor democratic.”
Ulises Mejias and Nick Couldry explain further:
A colonial framing highlights two central aspects of today’s transformations that would otherwise seem like mere collateral: the subjugation of human beings that is necessary to a resource appropriation on this scale (relations of subjection to external powers were central to historic colonialism), and the grounding of this entire transformation in a general rationality which imposes upon the world a very singular vision of Big Data’s superior claim on knowledge
(just as colonisers justified their appropriation on the ground of the West’s superior rationality).
Deepika Bahri looks at this claim to knowledge and the ideological and rhetorical parallels in both processes. She sums the resemblances between the two forms of colonialism in the following list of rhetorical patterns:
“1. ride in like the savior
2. bandy about words like equality, democracy, basic rights
3. mask the long-term profit motive (see 2 above)
4. justify the logic of partial dissemination as better than nothing
5. partner with local elites and vested interests
6. accuse the critics of ingratitude”
Key players in data colonialism
US corporations are clearly dominating the scene.
Yet, China’s digital economy is rapidly growing and so are its profits. In 2019, the digital economy generated 35.8 trillion yuan ($5.52 trillion) of revenue, accounting for 36% of China’s GDP, according to the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology.
Europe stand behind this race for digital dominance but when push comes to shove and countries from the global south push back against this new data colonialism, Europe took its place in he ranks of colonialism.
Deborah James from the Our World is Not for Sale network reports:
“Some developing countries are raising this issue at the WTO, and also now at the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), where a recent meeting failed to agree on recommendations because the EU blocked any mention of the data issue. The key subject of data control is indeed going to be the major point of conflict between corporate advocates and those defending development and the public interest in the years to come; indeed, resource wars of the future will be fought over control of data.”
Empire and power elites have historically shaped our perception of reality and our values. Prabir Purkayastha from the Just Net Coalition argues that this is now to a large extent in the hands of the digital platforms:
“To this power of the Empire to create new realities, we now have Google and Facebook, the latest keepers of the new reality. They operate in different ways. Google’s search decides what is history, but it is anchored to at least semblance of facts. Facebook is even more insidious. It promotes alternate realities, conspiracy theories and even a fact-free world. It has discovered that hate and fake news helps virality and engagement, the two measurements that reflect their ability to attract eyeballs and keep them on Facebook. It is the eyeballs that Google and Facebook sell, not news or communications. They do not create any content and have no stake in the content. What they need is our attention, for them that is money as our attention can be sold as a commodity to the advertisers.”
The solution cannot be to leave it in the hands of those corporations that have created these algorithms and digital tools in the first place.
If we demand the Big Tech to take responsibility over fact checking, bans and censorship based on their own – often questionable and always profit driven – values or some some kind of ‘community standards’ we have only legitimized the abdication of our basic rights in the hands of a handful of corporates. This spells the end of democracy.
Human Rights law and human rights impact assessment are the minimum basic norms to be respected. Considering the public impact of online platforms, their public accountability is crucial.
The chief officer for Artificial Intelligence at Moody’s describes the mechanism quite frankly:
“The goal of several social media and content selection algorithms is to maximize clicks. They are designed to show or recommend stuff that will increase the probability of users clicking on it, since clicking is what generates revenue for the platforms.
“For example, a click-through optimization algorithm is more profitable if it can better predict what people are going to click on, so it can feed them exactly that. So, a way to optimize the result is to feed users with content they like, and don’t show anything outside their comfort zone. Although it’s true that this causes their interests to become narrower, it’s not that the algorithms are trying to show you the stuff you like: they’re trying to turn you into a predictable clicker, taking you to a “predictable point” and making it easier for companies to perform any action (e.g. sell you something).”
Abeba Birhane explains how the apparent neutrality of Artificial Intelligence and data-driven systems is simply another form of perpetuating existing injustices and power structures:
“because of the inherently political nature of the way data is construed, collected, and used to produce certain outcomes (that align with those controlling and analyzing data), these systems alter the social fabric, reinforce societal stereotypes, and further disadvantage those already at the bottom of the social hierarchy. […]
“As we hand decision-making regarding social issues over to automated systems developed by profit-driven corporations, not only are we allowing our social concerns to be dictated by corporate incentives (profit), but we are also handing over complex moral questions to the corporate world.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression
In April 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye has submitted a report that examines the regulation of user-general online content.
Among the main recomendations are:
States should refrain from adopting models of regulation where government agencies, rather than judicial authorities, become the arbiters of lawful expression. They should avoid delegating responsibility to companies as adjudicators of content, which empowers corporate judgment over human rights values to the detriment of users.
States should publish detailed transparency reports on all content-related requests issued to intermediaries and involve genuine public input in all regulatory considerations.
Companies should recognize that the authoritative global standard for ensuring freedom of expression on their platforms is human rights law, not the varying laws of States or their own private interests, and they should re-evaluate their content standards accordingly. Human rights law gives companies the tools to articulate and develop policies and processes that respect democratic norms and counter authoritarian demands. This approach begins with rules rooted in rights, continues with rigorous human rights impact assessments for product and policy development, and moves through operations with ongoing assessment, reassessment and meaningful public and civil society consultation. […]
The companies must embark on radically different approaches to transparency at all stages of their operations, from rule-making to implementation and development of “case law” framing the interpretation of private rules. Transparency requires greater engagement with digital rights organizations and other relevant sectors of civil society and avoiding secretive arrangements with States on content standards and implementation.
Given their impact on the public sphere, companies must open themselves up to public accountability. […]
Israel as part of
Surveillance Capitalism and Digital Colonialism
Israel’s role in data colonialism resembles its place in traditional colonialism: it plays a subordinate but significant role in the system.
When colonialism had to retreat and reconfigure itself after the Second World War, Israel was founded as one of the last settler-colonial enterprises to be established.
While maintaining some of the traits of ‘traditional colonialism’ – including ethnic cleansing, military aggression, racial supremacy, racialist exploitation – Israel has always been a special case of post-industrialization colonialism, applying the old rules but with a ‘modern’ twist.
Israel didn’t have significant natural resources to exploit. There was no gold, no mining and until very recently no fossil fuels to exploit. When surveillance capitalism and data colonialism starts, Israel grabs its chance.
Israel’s full scale surveillance of the Palestinian people offers technology of data collection and processing central to the system.
Israel’s military has developed the technology and a system on how to channel the technology to the corporate field. It provides expertise for data collection and processing (from spyware to facial recognition, ‘user tracking tools’ and more). This technology is the very basis for surveillance capitalism and data colonialism. Its uses range from policing to electoral manipulation, from smart cities to advertising.
For the digital tech the connection with the military is natural and has helped to promote some of the most cutting edge technologies and developments.
Big Tech comes to Israel
While the big tech companies are US based corporations, with some rising competition from China, Israel also played a key role in the research and development of the Big Five tech corporations.
One after the other, tech companies have opened R&D centers in Israel in order to profit from the technology. Many of the Big Tech have based their first and biggest R&D centers outside the US in Israel.
Israel’s Innovation Authority boasts:
During the last few decades, over 300 multinational corporations operating at the forefront of technology selected to establish R&D centers in Israel, some are even operating several centers in various fields of development. These R&D centers account for about 50% of the business enterprise R&D expenditure. Over the years, the multinational corporations who operate R&D centers in Israel acquired a total of 100 Israeli companies. A number of them, such as – Intel, Microsoft, Broadcom, Cisco, IBM and EMC acquired over ten local companies over the span of their operation in Israel.
By 2019, between 230 and 440 “Internet of Things” companies have been established in Israel. They work in all areas of the sector, including optimization for factories, sensing and imaging, connectivity, robotics, 3D printing, predictive maintenance, inspection and testing, and cybersecurity for connected factories. Israel is only behind the US and China in terms of venture-backed financing for the Internet of Things industry.
Extensive investment in Israeli startups it to a great extent fuelled by the presence of international corporations that run their R&D, accelerators and other project in Israel.
The growing number of regional cloud service centers based in Israel are particularly concerning. A small number of cloud service providers are the backbone of most of online interactions and users in the MENA region may be forced to rely on these cloud centers.
In 1991 Microsoft opened its Research and Development (R&D) Center in Israel. It was its first such center outside the US. The center today employs over 1000 people. One of three strategic global development centers situated around the world, the Israeli branch specializes in cloud technologies, business intelligence, consumer analytics and more.
Microsoft’s latest investments include a joint initiative with a unit of China’s HNA, India’s Tata, GE Ventures and Qualcomm Ventures, Israel’s Pitango Venture Capital andTel Aviv University to set up a new $20 million fund to invest in Israeli startups that are developing Internet of Things (IOT) technologies.
In addition to its internal security investments, Microsoft has bought three security firms, all in Israel, in a little over two years: enterprise security startup Aorato, cloud security firm Adallom, and Secure Islands, whose data and file protection technology has been integrated into cloud service Azure Information Protection.
Microsoft aqcuired Israeli cyber-security firm Hexadite for for $100 million in May 2017. One month later, in June 2017, Microsoft purchased Israeli cloud analytics & optimization service Cloudyn for between $50 and 70 million.
Google first opened an office in Israel in 2006. Google now employs more than 600 engineers in Israel. Among the sectors they are working on is Search, Live Results and Maps (See more on google maps below). One of their biggest investment was the acquisition of Waze.
Apple opened its R&D facility in 2013. It was its first R&D center outside the US and has become the company’s second largest center in the world. The facility work on develop hardware such as chips, storage, cameras, and wireless technologies. was set up after Apple acquired two startups: the flash memory designer Anobit in 2012 and the 3D sensor developer PrimeSense in 2013. Apple has since acquired the Israeli camera firm LinX.
Amazon runs an R&D center in Israel that works on cloud business, among others. It also acquired the Israeli chipmaker Annapurna Labs in 2015 for a reported $350 million (£275 million).
In 2018, Amazon has opened a new office in Tel Aviv to “support the growth of Israeli startups, enterprises, and government customers”.
In 2019 Amazon Web Services (AWS) set up a cloud infrastructure in Israel based on local data centers. AWS is following in the footsteps of Microsoft, which set up its Azure cloud computing services in Israel the same year.
Facebook started in 2013 to build its R&D Center in Israel. Today, the center has some 200 employees and is the company’s second biggest, only topped by facebook’s US based R&D Center.
In 2019, Facebook launched a new blockchain development unit and has opened its Data.AI. Team in Israel. According to Facebook, Data.AI will improve “internal interfaces” and create new tools for data analysis. It “will work to make Facebook’s infrastructure smarter and capable of learning from previous experience in order to help engineers solve problems, predict future events and issues, and reach relevant data more quickly”. Reduced to essence, the Data.AI will work on data extraction from its users and most likely re-create some of the capacities Facebook has lost when it had to stop using the scandal-ridden services of Onavo. Facebook had bought this Israeli start-up back in 2013 and had to close it down after British and US governments, among others, investigated the company for the unlawful operations of Onavo software.
One of the leading cloud service providers, has announced it will open an underground cloud data center in Jerusalem in 2021. It will provide advanced cloud services to companies in Israel’s defense industry and government. It is supposed to be instrumental to the set up of an “East Cloud Region”, likely serving surrounding Arab countries.
Intel started operation is Israel already some 40 years ago. Today, it is one of the biggest employers in Israel, with 11,000 workers in several sites across the region, including a startup scouting ground.
HP has establsihed its HP Labs Israel already in 1994. It is is an excellence center in Big Data, machine learning, data mining, and imaging. The offices are located on the campus of Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa. According to the company, the lab fosters interactions with HP’s large R&D community in Israel, as well as the research institutions and high-tech companies.
HP made one of the earliest multi-billion acquisitions of n Israeli tech startup in 2006. It bought Mercury for $4.5 billion.
Moreover, HPE provides computer hardware to the Israeli army and maintain data centers through their servers for the Israeli police. They provide the Itanium servers to operate the Aviv System, the computerized database of Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority. This forms the backbone of Israel’s racial segregation and apartheid.
IBMResearch and text developed by Investigate, a project by AFSC.
IBM operates the central database of Israel’s Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority. The database’s main component is Israel’s biometric population registry, which includes information about residents’ ethnic and religious identity. This information is recorded on government-issued ID cards, which all residents must carry by law, and is routinely used by Israeli authorities to discriminate between Jewish and Palestinians citizens. The system also records all of Israel’s border crossings, including Erez Crossing between Israel and Gaza and the Allenby Bridge Crossing between Israel and Jordan. Palestinians under Israel’s military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are only allowed to leave or enter the country through the Allenby Bridge Crossing.
IBM won this contract, worth about $240 million, in 2017, replacing DXC Technology, which inherited the contract from predecessors HP and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. The contract includes the management, maintenance, and operation of the system, as well as designing a new system, called Eitan, to replace the older HP-designed Aviv system. IBM assumed full responsibility for the existing system in July 2019 and is scheduled to deliver the new system in 2020.
In addition, IBM subsidiary Red Hat has provided technologies for the Israeli military “operational internet,” a cloud-based computerized network designed to increase the military’s lethality and effectiveness. The system was developed in-house by the military’s Digital Transformation Administration based on Red Hat infrastructure. The project is reportedly worth several millions of dollars. Israeli military officers have described Red Had as a “business partner” and they routinely participate in Red Hat conferences to present their progress. Red Hat executives have described the Israeli military as their “leading customer,” and the company has expressed “great pride” in enhancing the military’s capabilities. The Israeli military is the main government agency administering the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territory and controlling almost every aspect of the daily lives of the Palestinian population.
As part of its EuroAsia Interconnector project, the EU is building the Quantum Cable, a 7,700km subsea ultra high speed fibre-optic cable system connecting Asia and Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. It connects Hadera with Cyprus, Greece, Italy, France and the Spanish State (Basque Country).
The Qantum Cable will have the capacity to handle up to 60% of the world’s internet traffic at peak time or enough capacity to handle tens of millions high-definition video conference calls between Asia and Europe at the same time.
It was scheduled to be ready by 2020 but since 2018 no news about the progress of the works are available.
Israel offers military intelligence and technology
Israel’s famed tech ‘environment’, Big Tech giants and other tech colonizers are so keen to take advantage of, is an extension of Israel’s decades old regime of apartheid, colonialism and occupation over the Palestinian people. Big Tech integrates the technology developed to maintain this regime, profiting from it and financing it.
A large part of the technology and start-up entrepreneurs come straight out of Israel’s military research and are field tested on Palestinians. This is what makes it so unique. Aharon Aharon, CEO of Israel’s Innovation Authority, puts it simple:
Cyberwarfare has always been at the forefront of the Israeli high-tech industry. […] The winning combination of graduates from IDF technology units and an innovation environment supported by the Innovation Authority enables cutting-edge Israeli technology to shape the future starting today.
Not only is Israel the most militarized country in the world. Israel has created a system to funnel its military technology to the hi-tech. Israel has transformed its military intelligence Unit 8200 into a startup incubator and promotes its capacities – including the very fact that they are rooted in the oppression of the Palestinian people – with full force.
Another comparative advantage that Israeli hi tech companies have, is the fact that there are de facto no limits to sales. They can sell cyber-surveillance technologies to governments and regimes which are then used to target activists, journalists, and perceived political opponents.
In 2016 Israel exported $6.5 billion in cybersecurity products. By 2017, Israel had become a world leader in cybersecurity technologies and home to the highest number per capita of surveillance companies in the world. In 2018, Israel announced it would invest further $24 million in its cyber-security industry.
From the school desk to the boardroom, via Unit 8200
Unit 8200 is the intelligence unit of the Israeli army. Almost unknown a few years ago, the unit has been promoted by Israeli media and officials as the ‘secret’ behind Israel’s tech capacities.
Leaving rhetoric aside, Israel has de facto created a well-oiled system to turn its huge military spending into technology and sales. Unit 8200 has a key role to play in it.
Before Unit 8200 – At school
The Israeli military and Unit 8200 hold training programs already for high school students.
The Israeli military goes into schools “offering Israeli high schoolers a comprehensive cybersecurity curriculum”. Israeli high-schoolers aged 16-18 attend workshops and participating in related summer camps where they learn and are recruited to Unit 8200 in order to train their capacities and big data surveillance on Palestinians. In some 10 schools, students can then directly move into a high-school major in cyber-science, learning among others “hacking and defense skills”.
At Unit 8200
Israel has since its inception used surveillance against the Palestinian people to project total control and intimidate and persecute the Palestinian people.
Over the last years, Israel’s military has strengthened its pervasive signal intelligence operations increasingly using its big data capabilities, including through social media monitoring.
In 2014, 43 members of Unit 8200 have published a letter confirming what Palestinians have always said. They denounced the systematic persecution of the Palestinian people they are perpetrating:
The Palestinian population under military occupation is completely exposed to espionage and surveillance by Israeli intelligence. While there are severe limitation on the surveillance of Israeli citizens, the Palestinians are not afforded this protection.
There is no distinction between Palestinians who are, and are not, involved in violence. Information that is collected and stored harms innocent people. It is used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself.
In many cases, intelligence prevents defendants from receiving a fair trial in military courts, as the evidence against them is not revealed. Intelligence allowed for the continued control over millions of people through thorough and intrusive supervision and invasion of most areas of life. This does not allow for people to lead normal lives, and fuels more violence further distancing us from the end of the conflict.”
After Unit 8200
Thanks to all the hype created about Unit 8200 and the superior capacities of its members, alumnis of the unit are highly sought after in the tech world. Nobody asks questions on the ethics or human rights.
To cash in on the fame, a few years ago unit alumni set up EISP, a company to mentor early-stage startups.5 EISP states that it offers “participants access to the 8200 Alumni network, comprised of 14,000 alumni in Israel and abroad: entrepreneurs, investors, and professionals from a diverse set of disciplines, which offer participants professional guidance and networking free of charge.” Among the partners of EISP is AWS, Amazon’s cloud service.
As an example for the system and the reality it produces, we are sharing a summary of the profile done by Corporate Watch on the Israeli cyber security firm Check Point.
Check Point – a crime, a name and lots of money
Israel’s tech company Check Point is probably the most emblematic offspring of the system that converts Israel’s apartheid experience into profits.
Check Point – the mere name evokes the reality of Israel’s military checkpoints that impose full control over Palestinian lives, serve to humiliate and persecute an entire population. Using this name for a software company is simple normalization of ongoing human rights violations. For the founders of the company, military checkpoints have most likely been the inspiration and Israel’s apartheid regime has been without a doubt the laboratory for their technology.
Check Point Software Technologies sells internet security products across the world and is the fourth largest company in Israel (calculated in terms of revenue, net profits, total assets and market capitalisation)
Check Point was one of many Israeli companies which saw its shares soar when Donald Trump came into power, as the company is expected to benefit from lucrative high-tech contracts connected to Trump’s militarist and pro-Israel policies
Shwed and other top Check Point directors have strong ties to Israel’s military – the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). In particular, several have backgrounds in elite military intelligence units. Check Point’s Gil Shwed regularly speaks at events which also host Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, as well as the Director General of the Israel National Cyber Directorate.
Applied Apartheid Experiences
Case studies on how Israeli contributions to the tech world operate in Palestine and across the globe.
Corona Colonialism and Surveillance
The COVID-19 global public health emergency has given rise to heightened forms of surveillance in the name of public safety across the world.
Israel has quickly taken a lead in this.
The Israeli government authorized the Shin Bet security service to apply its considerable powers of surveillance, long used against Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, to track the cellphones of confirmed coronavirus patients and those around them.
Palestinian digital rights group 7amleh has issued a detailed report on how Israel’s securitization of the coronavirus has “legitimized the use of mass surveillance methods and extended the Shin Bet authorities making Palestinians even more vulnerable alongside with other groups and human rights activists, defenders, organizations, and journalists criticizing the government.”
The notorious Israeli spyware company NSO Group is reportedly developing software to match cellphone-tracking and locational data. BriefCam, whose video surveillance has been deployed in the occupied Old City of Jerusalem, tweeted in late March that its people-counting video-analytic capabilities “can help organizations proactively protect” against COVID-19. KMC Systems, an Elbit Systems subsidiary, is already supplying its products to US healthcare professionals.
For more see Who Profit’s “Surrveillance under Covid”.
Under the guise of COVID restrictions, Israel made it de facto mandatory for Palestinian workers to download an application called Al Munasiq (“The Coordinator”) to their phones. Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (COGAT) launched the app in 2020. Citing COVID related restrictions, COGAT denied Palestinians access to the in-person services and all permit and other requests handled by COGAT had to be requested through the app. While downloading the application, users have to consent to sharing private information about the user, including files, messages, location data and even information from the camera, as revealed by Israeli media. This information is then used by the Israeli security services to spy on, develop profiles of and track Palestinians.
Spyware a software systems that essentially hack into devices. They trick people into installing it on their phones/devices. It violates civil and political rights in both, the way it functions by tricking people into involuntarily handing over information and the way it is distributed by intruding into devices.
These applications are almost always used outside of judicial and public oversight. Governments and police forces use them for surveillance and repression and corporations to increase their profits.
Unsurprisingly, this spyware is one of Israel’s favorite leading domains in terms of contribution to the tech world. The list of companies is long and we are listing here only some examples.
NSO Group, which also goes by the name Q Cyber Technologies, is an Israeli-based company which develops and sells spyware technology. The Canadian digital rights organization The Citizen Lab—along with organizations such as R3D, Privacy International, EFF, and Amnesty International—has closely tracked how NSO Group’s surveillance technology has been turned against political dissidents, lawyers, journalists, and human rights defenders. Among the many companies Citizen Lab has tracked, NSO Group stands out in terms of the reckless abuse of its spyware by government clients.
NSO Group / Q Cyber Technologies’ flagship spyware, which is usually branded as Pegasus but which may have other names (including Q Suite), is among some of the most sophisticated spyware available on the market and can infiltrate both iOS and Android devices.
Citizen Lab found Pegasus active in some 45 countries. The app has been connected with numerous human rights violations and crimes, including the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi, the repression of Mexican human rights activists, the spying on Al Jazeera reporters and many more.
The Citizen Lab has released in 2020 an indepth report about Circles. The company was reportedly founded in 2008, acquired in 2014 by Francisco Partners, and then merged with NSO Group. Circles is a surveillance firm that reportedly exploits weaknesses in the global mobile phone system to snoop on calls, texts, and the location of phones around the globe. It claims to sell this technology exclusively to nation-states.
Using Internet scanning, The Citizen Lab found a unique signature associated with the hostnames of Check Point firewalls used in Circles deployments. This scanning enabled them to identify Circles deployments in at least 25 countries, among them various states and police forces with a long record of human rights violations:
Australia, Belgium, Botswana (Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services), Chile (Investigations Police), Denmark (Army Command), Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala (General Directorate of Civil Intelligence), Honduras (National Directorate of Investigation and Intelligence),Indonesia, Israel, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico (Mexican Navy; State of Durango), Morocco (Ministry of Interior), Nigeria (Defence Intelligence Agency), Peru (National Intelligence Directorate), Serbia (Security Information Agency), Thailand (Internal Security Operations Command; Military Intelligence Battalion; Narcotics Suppression Bureau), the United Arab Emirates (Supreme Council on National Security; Dubai Government; Royal Group), Vietnam, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
It is assumed that in some cases the spying equipment is a key part of the Israeli government’s diplomatic charm offensive in Africa. By providing governments with the weapons to wage cyber-warfare on its citizens, Israeli diplomacy hopes to gain allies in its effort to capture African votes at the UN and defeat resolutions critical of Israel’s occupation.
The Israeli phone-hacking firm Cellebrite is a co-called “forensic software” firm. It does not sell spyware that gives live data flow but allows to break into phones and computers physically present. Like most other Israeli tech companies, much of Cellebrites success is apparently due to contributions from Unit 8200 alumni.
Celelbrite software and services has been sold across the globe, including repressive regimes and dictatorships, including Saudi Arabia, UAE, Hong Kong, The US state police agencies had collectively spent millions of dollars on Cellebrite products. US federal agencies, such as the FBI and Secret Service, are also Cellebrite customers. The US Immigration Customs Enforceement agency (ICE) and is a long time costumer of Cellebrite. US cities and states are also contracting Cellebrite. Memphis, Detroit, police departments in Maryland, Kansas, Floridaand Idaho are using Cellebrite.
Cellebrite makes not only money from the software but has built up an entire Cellebrite School where to learn “how to access and extract digital data, overcome complicated locks, encryption barriers” and more.
Bsightful, is part-owned and backed by one of the biggest surveillance vendors in the world, Verint.
Its software gathers location data by running what’s known as a Demand Side Platform (DSP), which is a service platform offering advertisers information on where specific apps are installed and which target ads on these apps can reach. Bsightful simply collects the location and other phone data the app developers are willfully providing.
Rayzone offers a software called Echo that’s built on masses of data collected from mobile apps. It promises to provide intelligence and police forces with “wide, diverse and in-depth information on global internet users.”
Rayzone’s website notes that the tool uses “a fully stealth method of collection on any internet user, without the need for cooperation from either the target or from any tech or commercial entity.” Rayzone says it’s useful for either targeting a specific individual or for “mass collection of all internet users in a country.” According to Forbes, this Israeli habit of spying on entire popluations is becoming a common feature of the policing sector.
Facebook resorted to the help of the technology coming out of Unit 8200 already in 2013 when it bought Onavo for 2013. Onavo was founded in 2011 by Guy Rosen and Roi Tiger, both veterans of the Israel Defense Forces secret cyber intel Unit 8200. Onavo’s sale to Facebook served as the basis on which the social media firm built its research and development center in Israel.
Onavo marketed itself as a Virtual Private Networking (VPN) provider. In reality it tracked the users’ online activity and helped Facebook to monitor, and when necessary buy up, any possible future competitor. In the anti-trust case brought against Facebook, the relevant committee of the U.S. House of Representatives asked CEO Mark Zuckerberg whether Onavo gave his social media giant the ability to surveil users. Zuckerberg apparently waffled, saying, “I’m not sure I’d characterize it in that way.”
Later, Facebook was forced to close Onavo.
Smart / Surveillance Cities
Tel Aviv was named the world’s smartest city at the 2014 Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona, beating out 250 other contenders for first prize.
Israel is investing heavily in the smart cities industry and hopes to reap significant profits from the market valued at USD 739.78 billion in 2020.
Smart cities have come under fierce criticism because the technology deployed at every corner of our lives collects without consent enormous amounts of data that can be transfromed into profits or into repression. It allows predictive/proactive policing to mass surveillance and reinforces existing racial discrimination and injustices.
Across the world, proponents of the Smart Cities attempt to paint a service oriented, user-friendly picture of the concept.
Israel is more straight forward: it offers its military and surveillance technology.
Eyad Feder-Levy, CEO of one of Israel’s smart city companies ZenCity, puts it simple: “We’re leveraging our infrastructure and security technology.” Unsurprisingly, the head of Digital Israel, the institution in charge of driving the smart city development forward in Israel is Dror Margalit, a former military intelligence officer.
The Identity & Biometric Applications Unit of Israel’s National Cybersecurity Directorate is planning to establish a National Biometric Laboratory. Biometric technology providers are asked to share views on the most advanced algorithms and devices, as well as details about testing methods and examination systems, with a focus on fingerprint and facial recognition.
The surveillance system in the occupied Old City of Jerusalem, Mabat 2000, is probably the best example what a smart city inspired by Israel looks like.
AnyVision is the kind of technology that showcases how Israel’s “security infrastructure” is taken up by the Big Tech and exported across the world.
The below information is mainly based on Who Profit’s report “Big Brother” in Jerusalem’s Old City: Israel’s Militarized Visual Surveillance System in Occupied East Jerusalem, issued in November 2018.
‘Mabat 2000’ – an acronym in Hebrew which stands for “technological & surveillance center,” and
also a word which means “gaze” – is the Israeli police’s most comprehensive visual surveillance project in the Old City of Jerusalem, saturating every street and alleyway with Close-Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras.
The system is an amalgamation of conventional forms of repression with an analytical and visual surveillance system. This ‘smart city’ project is an effort to harness surveillance, facial recognition, AI and more to advance Israel’s illegal annexation of East Jerusalem and the ethnic cleansing of the city. It build on the ongoing repression and control over the Palestinian people, which has been a core element of Israeli apartheid since its inception.
One of the Palestinian residents of the Old City explains the effect of Mabat 2000:
For us, residents of the Old City, the streets and alleyways used to be our collective social spaces, our living rooms. Now, not only are our living rooms surveilled, but they can even see underneath our clothes. Our privacy and liberty are systematically deprived from us, to make us leave and stop resisting.
Mabat 2000 not only surveils but enable the prediction of an individual’s behavior. Doron Turgeman, one of the Israeli commanders operating the system explained: “We operate on three planes of time. On the future plane – we know how to prevent events before they happen.”
Israel’s Public Security Minister, Gilad Erdan, put it differently: “The algorithm leads you to suspect someone.” Since 2015, over 200 Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line have been preemptively arrested – i.e. without them actually having done something that could lead to an accusation – using data analysis technology.
‘Mabat 2000’ technology is being showcased and exported internationally. The project’s command center has been visited by international political representatives and homeland security personnel, who according to a former Israeli police spokesperson, “have come and examined how the system works to learn how to use it overseas.
C. Mer Group
The C. Mer Group was established in 1987 by Chaim Mer, a former intelligence officer for the Israeli military Intelligence Unit 8200. Today it is headed by Nir Lempert. He served 22 years in Israeli military as part of Unit 8200. Over the years he was head of planning, head of the intelligence center and deputy commander of 8200. He is still the chairman of 8200 alumni association, where he focuses on encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation.
Athena, a fully owned subsidiary of C. Mer Group, is the main company providing software for ‘Mabat 2000.’ The company was established in 2003 by Shabtai Shavit, a former head for the Israeli National Intelligence Agency (Mossad). Athena sells advanced espionage solutions for cameras and cyber surveillance (OSCAR, OSCAR + and SAIP), boasting software that can “predict to prevent” and the ability to detect the “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
This software engages in constant collection of data, including facial recognition and ongonig surveillance, and analytical cross matching of information and metadata from – multilingual texts, images and videos, websites, social media, dark-net, and more – creating profiles of individuals and “identifying persons of interest.”
In addition, the company’s surveillance cameras have been installed at the Beit Iba checkpoint, the Sha’ar Efrayim checkpoint and at the Anatot army base in the occupied West Bank.
The US based company Cisco operates a pilot project for the Jerusalem Municipality in order to develop Smart City technology. The company doesn’t charge for the service as it aims to use the city as a laboratory and sell the technology afterwards at global scale.
Cisco is currently involved in the establishment of a network of technology hubs in the Naqab (Negev) desert, Jerusalem (including occupied East Jerusalem) and the occupied Syrian Golan. It has also won a tender from the Israeli ministry of defense to provide servers and IT support to the Israeli military, replacing HP.
Microsoft’s most egregious cooperation with an Israeli start-up direcly involved with the states apartheid and surveillance regime was its investment in AnyVision. In June of 2019, Microsoft made a $74 million dollar investment in AnyVision, an Israeli facial recognition company. Anyvision’s advisory board is headed by Tamir Pardo, former Mossad chief, whilst its president is Amir Kain, former head of the defense ministry’s security department. AnyVision was also the recipient of Israel’s top defense prize in 2018.
It sells an “advanced tactical surveillance” software system, Better Tomorrow, which lets customers identify individuals and objects in any live camera feed, such as a security camera or a smartphone, and then track targets as they move between different feeds.
7amleh, a Palestinian organizations fighting for digital rights, highlights AnyVision’s implication in Israel’s surveillance regime:
[…] five sources familiar with the matter confirmed to NBC News in October of 2019, that AnyVision’s technology powers a secret military surveillance project throughout the West Bank. One source said the project is nicknamed “Google Ayosh,” where “Ayosh” refers to the occupied Palestinian territories and “Google”denotes the technology’s ability to search for people. Furthermore, despite the company’s claim of the benign use of their software, one of the company’s technology demonstrations shows that the facial recognition system has been used to track suspects through occupied East Jerusalem and activists have spotted dozens of cameras ‘deep inside the West Bank.’
Yet, Microsoft’s Azure Marketplace still advertises and sells AnyVision advanced tactical surveillance systems.
NiceVision surveillance systems capture and analyze interactions and transactions in real time through cross-channel and multi-sensor products installed at over 25,000 global sites — airports, highways, railways, hotels, cruise lines, public facilities, schools and industries — in more than 150 countries.
Driven by analytics, NICE surveillance solutions are geared to improving business performance, increasing operational efficiency, preventing financial crime, ensuring compliance and enhancing safety and security.
In business for 40 years, Magal S3 recently won a $7.8 million, three-year contract to maintain and support homeland security infrastructure in Israel. Internationally, Magal S3 provides tailor-made cyber and physical security, safety and site-management solutions and products in more than 80 countries.
One of Israel’s most well-known developers of homeland security systems and products, Elbit makes integrated land, maritime and coastal control and surveillance systems, airport and seaport security systems, border surveillance systems, “safe city” systems, access and border registration control systems, transportation security systems, perimeter security products, electronic fences, electro-optic surveillance systems, tactical mini-UAVs and communications systems.
Denying the reality and narrative of the colonized and establishing an often fictional narrative to substitute the truth of the land and its people is a core element of settler colonialism anywhere in the world. Since the beginning, Israel’s colonial project has hinged on the denial of the history and present of the Palestinian indigenous population. This includes the repression of Palestinian narrative and voices.
As Edward Said put it:
The Palestinian narrative has never been officially admitted to Israeli history, except as that of “non-Jews,” whose inert presence in Palestine was a nuisance to be ignored or expelled.
Israel has developed a number of legal and military tools to implement this mission: It is forbidden to teach the Nakba, the mass expulsion of the majority of the Palestinian people from their homes, in schools; curriculums and teachers are highly controlled; protest is repressed; civil society organizations that oppose Israeli apartheid policies are blocked from receiving funding; those promoting the non-violent method of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to advance Palestinian rights are criminalised, fined or expelled; military censorship rules over all media outlets.
Starting in 2013, Israel and so-called GONGOs (government-organized non-governmental organizations), para-statal institutions, networks of trolls and other apologists of Israeli apartheid have created an institutional infrastructure and a never ending series of initiatives to fight any online content that challenges Israel’s colonial and racist narrative and to impose its own ‘reality’.
Only between 2017 – 2018 Israel’s complaints to social media companies led to the deletion of 27,000 posts from Facebook, Twitter and Google. The Israeli Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked stated that “Facebook, Google, and YouTube are complying with up to 95% of Israel’s requests to delete content that the Israeli government says incites Palestinian violence.”
Palestinian digital rights group 7amleh points out that the censorship produced by these initiatives and governmental lobbying is worsened by the introduction of artificial intelligence in order to ‘moderate’ or censor content. The AI systems used are highly erroneous and large swaths of Palestinian content has been taken down as Artificial Intelligence has been put to increasing use.
Ramzy Baround sums up the motivations behind Israel’s unrelentless fight against Palestinian voices and Palestinian narrative:
Israel’s true power – but also Achilles heel – is its ability to design, construct and shield its own version of history, despite the fact that such history is hardly consistent with any reasonable definition of the truth. Within this modus operandi, even meager and unassuming counter-narratives are threatening, for they poke holes in an already baseless intellectual construct.
Palestinian digital rights group 7amleh has produced an extensive research and microsite on how Google Map uses its power to re-define reality according to the aspirations of Israel’s expansionist and racist project. They state:
In a context where land and ownership are highly contentious and inherently political, Google holds immense power as the largest source of digital geographic data in the world, to shape and legitimize certain interpretations of the physical world and the politics that underpin it. As this report will show, because human rights extend into the digital sphere, the ways in which this physical world is represented in online maps can even run counter to the exercise of the most basic and essential human rights.
Google Maps does not include Palestinian areas that are unrecognised by Israel, or the term ‘Palestine’, yet it features illegal Israeli settlements within the West Bank. It ignores all movement restrictions that exist for Palestinians, such as checkpoints and restricted roads, which impede free movement of Palestinians, and, if not taken into consideration can cause severe danger for Palestinians. Route planning with Google Maps favours Israelis over Palestinians, given that the default routes are often only accessible for Israelis. In its refusal to display checkpoints and restricted roads, and Palestinian villages in the same detail as Israeli villages, Google Maps demonstrates its complicity in violating international law and human rights agreements. Instead of aligning itself with the policies and practices of Israeli authorities – or any one particular state – mapping services should operate in alignment with human rights standards and international law. Google Maps, as the largest global mapping and route planning service, has the power to influence global public opinion and therefore bears the responsibility to abide by international human rights standards and to offer a service that reflects the Palestinian reality. Instead of living up to this responsibility, Google has adopted the Israeli narrative, and only rarely allowed for mapping of some Palestinian cities in its Street View product.
With less influence on global perceptions than Google Maps, Open Street View and other online map providers are adopting similar views and policies.
In October 2019, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 noted with particular concern:
[…] the harmful practices employed by the political leadership and state authorities in Israel to silence human rights defenders’ criticism of certain government policies. This includes verbal attacks, disinformation campaigns and de-legitimization efforts, as well as targeting of civil society funding sources.
The Palestinian digital rights group 7amleh has produced over the years excellent research on how Israel systematically intimidates, harasses, delegitimizes, defunds and ultimately silences or shuts down Palestinian voices as well as international human rights activists and organizations. The below is a summary of some of the most relevants reports and findings.
2013: the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office started a program called “hasbara”, which was intended to combat criticism of Israeli policies by construing legitimate criticism and freedom of expression as hate speech. This initiative provided students on Israeli university campuses with full or partial scholarships to combat “anti-Israel content online” to encourage further disinformation campaigns.
2014: 400 Israeli students were engaged to push back against the outpouring of sympathy for Palestinians killed or wounded by the Israeli military attacks in the occupied Gaza Strip during “operation protective edge”. The campaign was conducted by using the hashtag Israel Under Fire in what was known as the “Hasbara Room,” which was supported by the Prime Minister and run with university funding and donations.
2015: The main state organ to currently coordinate these campaign is the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs (MSA). It was established in 2015 “to act against the delegitimization and boycott campaigns against the state of Israel.” Since then, the MSA has relentlessly targeted human rights defenders, organizations and their donors, who are civil society groups critical of Israel. The reports of the MSA blatantly smear human rights defenders, organizations and their supporter’s credibility as well as Palestinian civil society as a whole.
2015: The State Attorney’s Office in Israel established a cyber unit in the second half of 2015 to deal with “cyberspace enforcement challenges” by censoring online content on social media platforms that constitutes “incitement”. Officially operating under the Israeli Ministry of Justice, the work of the cyber unit is conducted in collaboration with Facebook and Twitter and entails removing content added by users, restricting access to certain websites, and blocking users’ access to these sites.
Case studies of platforms violating Palestinian rights and human rights
Palestinian digital rights group 7amleh highlights how:
Facebook has been censoring Palestinian content through account suspension and content takedown at an unprecedented level in recent years and is increasingly demonstrating its commitment towards the Israeli government to silence content pertaining to Palestinian solidarity or criticism of Israel.
Israel increased pressure on facebook gradually. In an interview in July 2016, Erdan, minister of the MSA claimed Facebook has “turned into a monster” and that the blood of the victims killed “is partially on Facebook’s hands”.
Weeks later, Jordana Cutler was appointed Head of Policy at Facebook’s office in Tel Aviv. Cutler is a longtime senior advisor to Israeli Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and was also chief of staff at the Israeli embassy in Washington. Cutler’s appointment was a step in the series of the government’s efforts to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.
Throughout 2017, the head of the cyber unit at Israel’s Attorney’s Office reported that 85% of the Israeli government’s requests to remove content were accepted in stark contrast to 70% in 2016.
In 2020, Facebook announced the selection of Emi Palor’s to its Oversight Board as a representative of the MENA region. Emi Palmor is the former general director of the Ministry of Justice. Under her direction, the Israeli Cyber Unit petitioned Facebook to censor legitimate speech of human rights defenders and journalists because it was deemed politically undesirable.
Whilst Facebook accelerates its efforts to suspend, delete and ban Palestinian accounts and pages under the pretext of “incitement”, the social media giant is simultaneously expanding its platform for Israeli incitement, 82% of which takes place on Facebook.
Palestinian digital rights group 7amleh has investigated Youtube’s repression and censorship of the Palestinian narrative and experience, violating Palestinian rights and human rights of freedom of expression. They have come to the conclusion that Youtube harms Palestinians in different ways:
Unclear Definition of Violence.
- Problematic and vague understanding of what is ‘violent content’ based on YouTube policies. This definition in particular has threatened alot of Palestinian digital content on YouTube.
Discriminatory Policies and Practices.
- Many of YouTube’s practices discriminate against Palestinian content. This includes locative discrimination, high surveillance, punishment through channel termination and blocking monetization.
Emotional Experience of Exclusion.
- Emotions of feeling discriminated, isolated, excluded, being angry and disappointed.
They report how according to Palestinian Youtube user Majd, the platform has violated his right to reflect what truly happened with a Palestinian child in one of the Palestinian villages. With sorrow, he said:
“YouTube understands what violates its terms and conditions, not what violates the ordinary people […] why do I need YouTube if I cannot report the violations which the Palestinians and the Palestinian kids in particular, are daily facing?”
Palestinian digital rights group 7amleh reports:
Although the e-commerce giant ships to over 100 countries worldwide, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not listed among its AmazonGlobal list of countries.
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who are able to purchase from Amazon usually use addresses of friends and relatives with Israeli/Jerusalem ID.
As for local merchants and sellers who wish to sell products on Amazon, the company does not accept seller registrations from the West Bank and Gaza, although there are 103 countries listed including Jordan and Israel.