Israel has developed an extensive facial recognition program in Gaza which it uses to conduct mass surveillance of Palestinians in Gaza.

According to the New York Times, this is an experimental effort, which has not been announced, and was initially used in Gaza to search for Israelis taken hostage by Hamas in the October 7 attack.

The same publication notes that after Israel began its ground offensive in Gaza, it increasingly turned to using the program to identify members of Hamas or other militant groups. At times, the technology has mistakenly identified civilians as wanted Hamas fighters.

Facial recognition technology has spread around the world in recent years, fueled by increasingly sophisticated AI systems. While some countries use the technology to facilitate air travel, China and Russia have deployed the technology against minority groups and to suppress political opponents.

It is typical the case of the Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha, who within a short distance of an Israeli military checkpoint along Gaza’s main highway on November 19, was called out by the crowd. He dropped his 3-year-old son, whom he carried and sat in front of a military jeep.

Half an hour later, Abu Toha heard his name called. He was then blindfolded and taken for questioning.

“I had no idea what was going on or how they could suddenly know my full name,” said the 31-year-old, who added that he had no ties to the militant group Hamas and was trying to leave Gaza for Egypt.

It turned out that Abu Toha had entered the range of cameras that carry built-in facial recognition technology, according to three Israeli intelligence officials who spoke to The New York Times on condition of anonymity. After his face was scanned and he was identified, an artificial intelligence program found that the poet’s name was on an Israeli wanted list.

Abu Toha is one of hundreds of Palestinians selected by Israel’s facial recognition program. The experimental program is being used to conduct mass surveillance in Gaza, collecting and evaluating the faces of Palestinians without their knowledge and consent, according to Israeli intelligence officers, military officials and soldiers.

The facial recognition program, which is run by an Israeli military intelligence unit, including the cyber-intelligence unit Unit 8200, is based on technology from Corsight, a private Israeli company, four intelligence officers said. They said it also uses Google Photos. Combined, the technologies allow Israel to pick faces from crowds and drone footage.

An Israeli military spokesman declined to comment on whether the report was true, but said the military was “conducting the necessary security and intelligence operations while making significant efforts to minimize harm to the uninvolved population.” He added, “Of course, we can’t talk about operational capabilities.”

Israel previously used facial recognition in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to an Amnesty International report last year, but this particular effort in Gaza goes even further.

In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Israelis have a domestic facial recognition system called Blue Wolf, according to the Amnesty report. At checkpoints in West Bank cities such as Hebron, Palestinians are scanned by high-resolution cameras before being allowed entry. Soldiers also use smartphone apps to scan Palestinians’ faces and add them to a database, the report said.

In Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005, there was no facial recognition technology. Instead, Hamas’s surveillance in Gaza was conducted by tapping phone lines, interrogating Palestinian prisoners, collecting drone footage, accessing private social media accounts and accessing telecommunications systems, Israeli intelligence officers said.