The contract announced in April 2021 concerns the so-called ‘Project Nimbus’ and includes the delivery of cloud services to Israel’s army and government. Late last year, nearly 400 employees of the tech giants wrote in an open letter that it would provide Israel with “dangerous technology” that would enable it to carry out the “systematic discrimination and expulsion” of Palestinians “even more cruelly and deadly”. They also stated that Amazon and Google facilitate not only Israeli surveillance and illegal data collection on the Palestinians, but also the expansion of illegal Israeli colonies in occupied Palestinian territory.
That fear was justified, according to new research by The cut, an investigative journalism platform specializing in war, surveillance, technology and media. Through a former Google employee, The Intercept managed to obtain training materials and videos intended for users of the Nimbus platform. This is the first time that more is known about the functionality of the Nimbus project.
Although the training materials do not provide insight into how Israel uses Nimbus, it suggests that Google is providing the Israeli state with advanced technology in machine learning and artificial intelligence. This allows Israel to take its surveillance of the occupied Palestinian population to a higher level.
For example, the technology enables Israel to automate processes such as facial recognition and the analysis and categorization of images. The Intercept even mentions a so-called ‘sentiment analysis’ which could automatically assess the ’emotional content’ of photos, speech fragments and texts. Google claims that it is possible with the technology to find out someone’s real feelings and to distinguish fact from lies. The technique is generally dismissed as pseudoscientific and not much better than phrenology, the antiquated teaching that mental abilities and character traits can be inferred from features such as the shape of the skull. For that reason, Microsoft announced in June that it would no longer offer such services.
Israel has long had a sophisticated system for monitoring the Palestinian population. Released in November 2021 Washington Post a report on the monitoring program Blue Wolf. This allows Israeli soldiers to take and upload photos of Palestinians. These photos are then linked to a database of images and personal information so voluminous that it is described as a secret “Facebook for Palestinians.”
The Intercept warns that the Nimbus project goes even further: “While the Israeli military and security forces already rely on an advanced system of digital surveillance, Google’s advanced data analytics could exacerbate the increasingly data-driven military occupation.”
Commenting on the investigation, Ori Givati of the Israeli Anti-Occupation Organization said: Break the silence: ‘Collection of data on the entire Palestinian population was and is an integral part of the occupation. In general, all the various technological developments we see in the occupied territories focus on one central element: more control.’
Mona Shtaya, a Palestinian employee of 7 amleh – The Arab Center for Social Media Advancement, describes the extensive Israeli surveillance of the occupied Palestinian population to The Intercept in similar terms: “Image recognition, facial recognition and emotion analysis will make it easier for the surveillance state to violate the Palestinian right to privacy. Its main purpose is to create a panoptic feeling among the Palestinians that we are being watched all the time. It makes it even easier to exercise control over the Palestinian population.’