Israeli spooks vacuuming up American ‘faceprints’

Today’s NYT Business Section has an interesting article about the increasing use of facial recognition software in security/access systems in the U.S. The main subject that the writer, Natasha Singer, was describing was the emergence of serious questions about the ethics of the whole business. The piece was subtitled, “What hath facial recognition wrought? A pioneer in the field now warns of its potential for invading individual privacy.”

The pioneer in question is Greek/French physicist Joseph Atick; and Singer quotes his views at some length. For counter-point, she provides a description of– and some quotes from– an ardent advocate of the use of facial recognition, a guy called Aharon Zeevi Farkash, whom she introduces simply as the chief executive of a company called FST Biometrics which, she does admit, is Israeli.

This man wants to vaccum up YOUR face, Americans!
This man wants to vacuum up YOUR face, Americans!

But Farkash (shown left) is no ordinary corporate CEO. This is how FST’s own website describes him:

From 1990-1993, he headed the prestigious Israel SIGINT National Unit (8200), after which he held senior positions in the [IDF’s] Planning Branch for five years. Promoted to the rank of General in 1998, he subsequently served as Head of the Technology & Logistics Branch until 2001; he then was appointed to lead the Directorate of Military Intelligence (Aman), where he served until retiring from the IDF in 2006.

Farkash thus spent 16 years in significant leadership positions in the Israeli military-intel system. Palestinian rights activist Kawther Salam, who tries to document the responsibility of individual Israeli commanders for gross rights abuses, writes about Farkash:

He was responsible for planning and implementing the assassinations of 544 Palestinian between 2002 and 2006.

… During 2004 he ordered the assassinations of 112 Palestinians. During the operations to carry out these assassinations, an additional 172 children were murdered.

Due to demolition orders given by Zeevi-Farkash, 2366 houses were destroyed.

… The actions of Aharon Zeevi-Farkash in office constitute genocide and ethnic cleansing in international laws and statutes which have also been signed and ratified by Israel.

I’m not sure I agree with Kawther that Farkash was responsible for giving the orders in these cases. But undoubtedly, he was responsible for the preparation of the plans given to the political leadership for these actions. (Maybe he would claim that in preparing those plans, he was “just following orders”. Have we heard that before somewhere?)

Singer’s article today describes two places in the United States where Farkash’s company– whose ‘C’ suite is stuffed with other men who are similarly proud to flaunt their experience in the IDF– has already installed its facial recognition systems. One is Knickerbocker Village, “a 1,600-unit redbrick apartment complex in Lower Manhattan,” which Singer describes as “a showcase for FST Biometrics”. The other is an un-named private high school in Los Angeles.

Singer writes of Farkash:

In essence, he started FST Biometrics because he wanted to improve urban security. Although the company has residential, corporate and government clients, Mr. Farkash’s larger motive is to convince average citizens that face identification is in their best interest. He hopes that people will agree to have their faces recognized while banking, attending school, having medical treatments and so on.

If all the “the good guys” were to volunteer to be faceprinted, he theorizes, “the bad guys” would stand out as obvious outliers. Mass public surveillance, Mr. Farkash argues, should make us all safer.

Really? And who is the “us” he was talking about there? For me, as a U.S. citizen, I certainly do not feel safer knowing that there are places in my country where a company run by a bunch of Israeli intel experts has been vacuuming up my “faceprint”.

Do such systematic capturings of my “faceprint” require any form of permit? At present, I believe not. (Singer’s piece provides a pretty good exploration of the many privacy issues these new technologies present, and is worth reading on that score.) But I am outraged that a company so closely associated with Israel’s SIGINT bureaucracy is allowed to be vacuuming up this kind of data anywhere in America.

I would hope that the residents of Knickerbocker Village and students and faculty at the un-named L.A. school would be outraged as well, and would work to terminate these very harmful contracts as soon as possible.

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