Microsoft hires Eric Holder to audit AnyVision over use of facial recognition on Palestinians

According to five sources, AnyVision's technology has powered a secret military surveillance project that has monitored Palestinians in the West Bank.
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82nd Attorney General of the U.S. Eric Holder speaks onstage during City Of Hope Spirit Of Life Gala 2019 on Oct. 10, 2019 in Santa Monica, Calif.Lester Cohen / Getty Images for City of Hope file

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By Olivia Solon

SAN FRANCISCO — Microsoft has hired former United States Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct an audit of facial recognition company AnyVision to determine whether it complies with Microsoft's ethical principles on how the biometric surveillance technology should be used.

Microsoft's venture capital arm, M12, invested in AnyVision as part of a $74 million Series A funding round in June. Under the terms of the deal, Microsoft stipulated that AnyVision should comply with its six ethical principles to guide its facial recognition work: fairness, transparency, accountability, nondiscrimination, notice and consent, and lawful surveillance.

The last principle states, "We will advocate for safeguards for people’s democratic freedoms in law enforcement surveillance scenarios and will not deploy facial recognition technology in scenarios that we believe will put these freedoms at risk."

AnyVision, headquartered in Israel, sells an "advanced tactical surveillance" software system, Better Tomorrow. It lets customers identify individuals and objects in any live camera feed, such as a security camera or smartphone, and then track targets as they move between different feeds.

NBC News reported in October that according to five sources familiar with the matter, AnyVision's technology has powered a secret military surveillance project that has monitored Palestinians in the West Bank. The project was so successful that AnyVision won Israel's top defense price in 2018 for preventing "hundreds of terror attacks" using "large amounts of data."

Human rights activist argued that AnyVision's work monitoring Palestinians in the West Bank was incompatible with its public statements about ethical standards for facial recognition technology.

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"AnyVision's facial recognition technology is not being used for surveillance in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, and AnyVision would not allow its technology to be used for that purpose," said AnyVision in a statement issued to NBC News last month.

The company said that its technology was only used at checkpoints into and out of Israel, "similar to Global Entry in the United States."

AnyVision disputed the accuracy of the NBC News story published in October, but did not respond to subsequent questions seeking clarifications regarding its use of the technology.

“In recent weeks, there have been a number of inaccurate reports on AnyVision technology," said AnyVision's chief commercial officer Max Constant in an emailed statement Saturday. "We proactively encouraged Microsoft to conduct an audit of our company and look forward to engaging with the team at Covington & Burling. Ethics, privacy and data integrity are the foundational principles upon which our technology and our company were built. We look forward to the audit validating our high standards and continuing to provide a technology for good.”

When NBC News reported on this classified work in October, Microsoft said it took the allegations of surveillance seriously because "they would violate our facial recognition principles," a company spokesman said.

"If we discover any violation of our principles, we will end our relationship."

"All of our installations have been examined and confirmed against not only Microsoft's ethical principles, but also our own internal rigorous approval process," AnyVision said at the time.

Holder will lead a team of former federal prosecutors at law firm Covington & Burling to carry out the investigation into how AnyVision's technology is being used.

"They will move quickly, reviewing documents and conducting on the ground interviews with Anyvision employees and others to ensure a full and thorough investigation," said a Microsoft spokesman in a statement.

In 2017, Uber hired Holder to investigate allegations of sexual harassment published by former employee Susan Fowler. Airbnb hired him the previous year to help develop the company's anti-discrimination policies, after reports that some Airbnb hosts had rejected African-American and trangender travelers.

This article has been updated to include a statement from AnyVision about the audit.