A 12-month series of stories explores the social and economic questions arising from the fast-spreading uses of artificial intelligence.

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QALANDIA CHECKPOINT, West Bank – For tens of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank, the daily voyage into Israel for work, family visits and other business begins at this checkpoint near Jerusalem, reminiscent of a passage through a prison portal. Concrete walls surround the grey building at the Qalandia crossing that looks part transit terminal, part military bunker. Inside, families squeeze large suitcases through a labyrinthine hallway to reach a set of high-tech turnstiles armed with something as controversial as the checkpoint itself: facial recognition scanners.

On a recent late morning, a scanner’s green light washed over Khaled Habyeab’s face as he placed his magnetic ID card on a reader. The gate’s clear doors swished open. Like other Palestinians traveling to Israel for work, doctor’s visits or tourism, the Central West Bank resident must carry an ID card and a permit that lists his reason for visiting. Habyeab’s clean record, devoid of arrests and political activity, allowed him to receive a biometrics card from Israel’s Civil Administration office the same day he applied, the 30-year-old restaurant manager said. He planned to spend his day off touring Tel Aviv with his wife.

While the facial recognition systems installed at Qalandia and 26 other checkpoints last summer have drawn the ire of human rights advocates, Habyeab remarked on its effectiveness in comparison to the long waits in previous years when security guards manually checked IDs. The checkpoint was once packed with people waiting in a chaotic scene that resembled “chickens going through the chicken [coop],” he said.

Still, the facial recognition scanners serve as a reminder of the ever-present Israeli occupation of the area, Habyeab said through a translator: “There is no freedom.”

The facial recognition scanners were developed by Israeli artificial intelligence (AI) security startup AnyVision, which has ties with Redmond-based Microsoft. Microsoft’s venture capital fund, M12, came under fire for participating in a $74 million investment in the AI security company last June. AnyVision has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

Seattle and Israel’s AI ecosystem have long had close ties, from Microsoft’s and Amazon’s acquisitions of Israeli startups to ongoing academic collaborations. The global expansion of AI surveillance technology has some roots in Israel, with its fingerprints stretching to the U.S. border with Mexico. A 2016 Privacy International report found that Israel boasts the most surveillance firms per capita in the world. In recent weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the nation would use counterterrorism measures such as digital surveillance technology to track people with possible exposure to COVID-19. […]

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