The Israeli algorithm criminalizing Palestinians for online dissent

Nicolas Collignon Privacy 0 Comments

Israeli
intelligence has developed a predictive policing system – a
computer algorithm – that analyzes social media posts to identify
Palestinian “suspects.”

Graffiti on the separation wall in the West Bank, Palestine. Photo by Wall in Palestine. Flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0) Some rights reserved.The
Palestinian Authority’s (PA) arrest
of West Bank human rights defender Issa Amro
for a Facebook post
last month is the latest in the the
PA’s
recent crackdown on online dissent among Palestinians. Yet it’s a
tactic long used by Israel, which has been monitoring social media
activity and arresting Palestinians for their speech for years –
and has recently created a computer algorithm to aid in such
oppression.

Since
2015, Israel has detained around 800 Palestinians because of content
they wrote or shared online, mainly posts that are critical of
Israel’s repressive policies or share the reality of Israeli
violence against Palestinians. In the majority of these cases, those
detained did not commit any attack; mere suspicion was enough for
their arrest.

The
poet Dareen Tatour, for instance, was arrested
on
October 2015

for publishing a poem about resistance to Israel’s 50-year-old
military rule on her Facebook page. She spent time in jail and has
been under house arrest for over a year and a half. Civil rights
groups and individuals in Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territory
(OPT), and abroad have criticized
Israel’s detention of Tatour and other Palestinian internet users
as violations of civil and human rights.

Israeli
officials have accused social media companies of hosting and
facilitating what they claim is Palestinian incitement. The
government has pressured these companies, most notably Facebook, to
remove such content. Yet the Israeli government is mining this
content. Israeli intelligence has developed a predictive policing
system – a computer algorithm – that analyzes social media posts
to identify Palestinian “suspects.”

Predictive
policing, which uses data analytics and algorithms to forecast where
and when a crime might occur, is nothing new. Fifty police
departments in the US already use one form of predictive policing:
area mapping of so-called hotspots on which police then focus their
efforts. In contrast, Israel uses predictive policing to identify
likely attackers.

The
algorithm-based program monitors tens of thousands of young
Palestinians’ Facebook accounts. It searches for such elements as
photos of Palestinians killed or jailed by Israel to identify
individuals it deems suspicious. The Israeli army also monitors the
activity of relatives, friends, classmates, and co-workers of recent
Palestinians killed by Israel to assess their potential risk.

In
the US, a
coalition of civil rights organizations, including
the ACLU and the NAACP, criticizes the use of algorithms because they
reinforce
existing
police bias

and discrimination against minorities and other oft-targeted groups.
Essentially, predictive policing uses past data related not to actual
crimes
or attacks, but to the state or police response to it. For example,
when researchers
applied predictive policing algorithms to drug crime data in Oakland,
California, the algorithm recommended police be deployed exclusively
to neighborhoods with low-income black residents. Oakland police were
already patrolling these areas heavily for drug crime. Thus, such
algorithm-based systems only reinforce existing biases.

“[Predictive
policing] concentrates existing law enforcement tactics, and will
intensify stringent enforcement in communities of color that already
face disproportionate law enforcement scrutiny,” the coalition said
in a statement
.

While
systematically targeting Palestinians online, Israel does not punish
its Jewish residents for their social media posts, though a
significant number of them are racist and violent toward Arabs or
Palestinians. A recent
report

from the Palestinian organization 7amleh
reveals that in 2016 almost 60,000 Israeli internet users wrote at
least one post containing either racism or hatred towards
these groups, mostly on Facebook. This translated into
a violent post every 46 seconds.

The
difference in how the Israeli government treats Palestinians and
Jewish Israelis in regard to their online speech is emblematic of how
it treats them in real life.

Even
government officials write such content. In the lead-up to Israel’s
bombing of
Gaza
in 2014, Ayelet Shaked, an extreme right-wing Israeli
parliamentarian, posted
a Facebook message
that said that Palestinian fighters’
mothers should be killed and their homes destroyed. She, nor any
other Israeli Jewish internet user who publishes such language has
been arrested or even called to account.

The
difference in how the Israeli government treats Palestinians and
Jewish Israelis in regard to their online speech is emblematic of how
it treats them in real life. Israel severely restricts Palestinians’
freedom of movement through checkpoints and the massive West Bank
separation wall in an attempt to control an oppressed people
struggling for its freedom. Jewish Israelis, on the other hand, are
permitted unfettered freedom of movement, both in Israel and most of
the OPT. Israel justifies its mining of online data by boasting that
doing so has decreased the number of violent attacks. The argument is
similar to other authoritarian governments that justify online
surveillance, internet shutdowns, the blocking of websites, and
censorship.

Even
if such algorithms deter attacks, imprisoning Palestinians based on a
probability created by a machine is a clear violation of
Palestinians’ rights. The expansion of the Israeli occupation’s
oppression of
the Palestinian people,
now in its fiftieth year, to the cyber sphere is an alarming trend.
Every and any Palestinian is now a suspect simply by exercising their
freedom of expression online.

While
some western
analysts suggest
collecting neutral data or building neutral algorithm models as a way
to circumvent abuse and discrimination, such recommendations do not
resonate in a context of prolonged military occupation. Israel must
stop policing the internet to further silence and oppress
Palestinians. The detention of Palestinian civilians based on a
machine’s prediction and no evidence is yet another instance to be
added to Israel’s long list of violations of Palestinian human
rights.

Country or region:

Palestine

Israel

Topics:

Civil society

Conflict

Democracy and government

Equality

Rights:

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