Microsoft has announced that its divesting its shareholding in the Israeli facial recognition company AnyVision. The move follows an audit which was forced by a BDS campaign targeting the company. Activists say that AnyVision’s facial recognition technology is used to spy on Palestinians in the West Bank.
After Microsoft invested in the company last June, NBC News reported that AnyVision “powers a secret military surveillance project” in Palestine. “Face recognition is possibly the most perfect tool for complete government control in public spaces, so we need to treat it with extreme caution – said the ACLU’s Shankar Narayan at the time. When NBC reached out to AnyVision CEO Eylon Etshtein for the story, he denied knowledge of the project, insisted that the West Bank wasn’t occupied, and implied that the report was being funded by a Palestinian activist group.
During the summer of 2019, Jewish Voice for Peace launched a campaign calling on Microsoft to #DropAnyVision. This year they teamed up with the groups MPower Change, and SumofUs to organize a petition on the issue. It was ultimately signed by over 75,000 people and delivered to company headquarters by activists and Microsoft employees.
We're handing over the petition and using this truck to tell @satyanadella there is nothing ethical or principled about the daily humiliation Palestinians face at military checkpoints. Microsoft funds facial recognition tech that makes that experience even worse. #DropAnyVision pic.twitter.com/OEji8djMwM
— Jewish Voice for Peace (@jvplive) January 29, 2020
In November 2019, Microsoft hired former United States Attorney General Eric Holder (and his team at Covington & Burling) to conduct an audit on AnyVision to determine whether the company practices were in line with Microsoft’s ethical principles. The findings concluded that the technology is used at border crossing checkpoints, but that the company “does not currently power a mass surveillance program in the West Bank that has been alleged in media reports.”
Nonetheless, Microsoft decided to part ways with AnyVision. “After careful consideration, Microsoft and AnyVision have agreed that it is in the best interest of both enterprises for Microsoft to divest its shareholding in AnyVision,” it said in a statement, “For Microsoft, the audit process reinforced the challenges of being a minority investor in a company that sells sensitive technology, since such investments do not generally allow for the level of oversight or control that Microsoft exercises over the use of its own technology.”
“Microsoft’s decision to dump AnyVision is a huge blow to this deeply complicit Israeli company and a success for an impressive BDS campaign led by Jewish Voice for Peace,” said BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti in a statement, “Israel’s war crimes against Palestinians, with the complicity of many corporations like AnyVision, continue despite the threat of the coronavirus, so our resistance to them and our insistence on freedom, justice and equality cannot but continue.”
“Microsoft’s decision to heed the calls of the campaign to drop the Israeli surveillance company AnyVision is a huge and timely BDS victory,” tweeted the official account of the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC).
Joint statement from the BDS Movement and @jvplive:
— BDS movement (@BDSmovement) March 30, 2020
“Microsoft’s decision to divest from AnyVision is an important victory for tech justice activists and the international community in solidarity with the Palestinian people,” said MPower Change Campaign Manager Lau Barrios, This decision by Microsoft, a global leader in tech, also reinforces our belief that government, police, and military cannot be trusted with use of surveillance technology like facial recognition, which is increasingly being used in the U.S. and worldwide to monitor, surveil, and further criminalize Black, brown, immigrant, Palestinian, and Muslim communities.”