The social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter) is working with an Israeli tech firm to verify BlueTick subscribers, raising suspicions that personal data could fall into the hands of the Israeli government or private sector, both of whom have a long history of illegally stealing user data, including from X itself, and spying on both allies and adversaries.
In August, app researcher Nima Owji X broke the news that X was testing identity verification features. In September, X made the rumors official and released information regarding the verification means. The process requires uploading a photo of your ID along with a selfie, with the data then being shared with AU10TIX, an Israeli identity verification company founded by former Israeli intelligence officials that stores the data for 30 days before, according to X, it will be deleted.
— Nima Owji (@nima_owji) August 16, 2023
According to X, AU10TIX deletes images of stored user IDs within 72 hours of receiving them, and selfies are deleted after the processing results are received. X notes that it does collect face data as well as other data extracted from a user’s ID. The verification process is optional for subscribers and is currently only available to individuals and not businesses or organizations.
X claims that the verified label will help to authenticate user accounts, preventing impersonation. They also tout other benefits to verified users, such as a visibly labeled ID verification when clicking on a blue checkmark as well as prioritized user support. The company also promises benefits for users willing to send their data to the Israeli firm, including a simplified review process and greater flexibility in making changes to a user’s profile photo, display name, or handle.
However, several digital rights experts warned of the possible implications this development could have.
AU10TIX is a subsidiary of ICTs International, a company established by former members of the Shin Bet and El Al airline security agents.
Do not share your personal information with Musk or this Israeli company. https://t.co/B2ZFQn2Ms5
— Marwa Fatafta مروة فطافطة (@marwasf) August 20, 2023
“We’re talking about giving that information to not just Twitter, but to a third party,” Jason Kelley, activism director for digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, told MintPress News. “In any kind of verification scenario, whether it’s going online to verify your age or verify your actual address, there should be concerns.”
In a conversation with Middle East Eye, Nadim Nashif, executive director of 7amleh, a Palestinian digital rights organization, expressed alarm over the alleged collaboration.
“Au10tix is located in Israel and both have a well-documented history of military surveillance and intelligence gathering,” Nashif said. “This association raises questions about the potential implications for user privacy and data security.”
Other analysts cautioned that the verification procedures could lead Israel to compromise sensitive information. “It’s going to be a deliberate and definite harm to ordinary users if it is used, and or abused, by Israel, and it’s very likely it will be,” British sociologist and propaganda expert, David Miller, said on the television program Palestine Declassified.
— Palestine Declassified (@PDeclassified) September 27, 2023
Antony Loewenstein, an independent journalist and author of The Palestine Laboratory, a new book on Israeli technology exports, says that X’s verification process will normalize Israeli surveillance tech. In a press release, Loewenstein said:
The worldwide spread of surveillance tech, often built by veterans of the Israeli intelligence service who have spent years monitoring Palestinians under occupation, is a threat to democracy across the globe. In an age of rising ethno-nationalism, from India to Hungary to Israel, it’s vital to ask critical questions about the source and pedigree of any Israeli digital company.”
Loewenstein emphasized that more needs to be known about the verification measures. How secure is the information? Where will it be stored, and who has access to the data? “These are all legitimate questions, and especially because in the last five years, there’s been a number of really disturbing cases of Twitter bad state actors getting access to delicate information,” Loewenstein told MintPress News.
In 2014 and 2015, three Saudi agents infiltrated Twitter to identify individuals criticizing the Kingdom’s government from anonymous Twitter accounts. Ultimately, the identities of thousands of anonymous Twitter users were exposed, and later these individuals were reportedly detained and tortured by the Saudi government. From this, X is now implicated in a new civil lawsuit in the United States for helping Saudi Arabia commit human rights abuses.
“This sort of move could potentially lead to something similar with Israel or other states, Loewenstein said, referring to the verification process.
X did not respond to requests for comment regarding the privacy and security concerns raised. Instead of a smiling fecal emoticon, which is now customary for Twitter press responses, the press department sent an automatic reply, writing, “Busy now, please check back later.” Israeli firm AU10TIX also did not respond to queries regarding its identity verification process with X or to address the technology’s security concerns.
Who is Behind AU10TIX?
AU10TIX was founded in 2002 as the technological arm of Dutch security company ICTS International, which itself was founded by former members of the Israeli security agency, Shin Bet, and ex-security officials at Israeli airline, El Al.
AU10TIX founder and current chairman, Ron Atzmon, served in Shin Bet’s notorious 8200 unit, which surveils Palestinians and uses the information for political persecution as well as sowing division in Palestinian society by identifying potential informants. The unit is widely known for funneling its veterans to the Israeli high-tech sector. Former 8200 unit officers have founded more than 1,000 companies, with 80% of Israeli cyber tech firms established by 8200 unit graduates.
Atzmon isn’t the only AU10TIX staff member to have been part of the elite intelligence unit. In fact, several of the company’s engineers worked in the 8200 unit.
Naturally AU10TIX — the Israeli tech firm @elonmusk wants to deploy for users to hand information over for verification purposes — have engineers who worked / work in Unit 8200, the intelligence unit of the Israeli Occupation Forces. pic.twitter.com/QE2wPkpx5q
— Jennine (@jennineak) August 20, 2023
The company’s leadership is also packed with former Israeli soldiers. AU10TIX’s vice president of product management, Nir Stern, served in the Israeli Air Force. Avidan Lamdan, vice president of research and development, worked as an engineer in the Israeli military. The company’s general counsel, Udi Abram, worked as an Israeli military captain, as well as working for five years at Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest weapons manufacturer arming Israel’s military. Elad Elazar, vice president of pre-sales, was a major in the Israeli military. And AU10TIX’s Asia-Pacific head, Rom Amir, was an Israeli army lieutenant.
“Often these companies have gained experience for their business from working in the military surveilling Palestinians,” Loewenstein said. “And they take that so-called experience into a global community and sell it for large amounts of money.”
Some of the company’s leadership has also worked with major Israeli cyber companies accused of controversial surveillance tactics.
Chief marketing officer Amazia Keidar previously worked as the vice president of international marketing for Cellebrite, an Israeli cyber tech firm known for selling its products to law enforcement agencies in Latin American countries. Edo Soroka, vice president of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa sales, worked as the sales director for AnyVision, an Israeli start-up accused of surveilling Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Chief financial officer Erez Hershkovitz worked in the same role for Voyager Labs, an Israeli company sued by Meta for using nearly 40,000 fake Facebook accounts to collect data on an estimated 600,000 users.
AU10TIX’s Clandestine Tactics
AUT0TIX first started out providing identity intelligence services for airports and border control around the world, establishing itself as an anti-terror technology exporter. Now, the company markets itself as a leading fraud expert, boasting that its identity verification tool can determine a person’s age and even location.
Not only does AU10TIX employ former Unit 8200 personnel, but it also uses the same kind of facial recognition technology developed by the unit to conduct espionage activities against Israel’s foes, again raising concerns about how the biometric data collected could be used.
Journalist Richard Silverstein, who covers the Israeli national security state, explained that AU10TIX must maintain a large database containing the personal information of millions or even tens of millions of people in order to detect patterns resembling fraud. This data could come from public sources as well as private entities by accessing information obtained from other companies, governmental agencies, and law enforcement.
“Its algorithms..may even tag those who haven’t engaged in any such behavior, but who might in the future,” Silverstein wrote in The New Arab. “The point is, no one except AU10TIX and its clients know what the algorithm is and how it makes such determinations.”
Beyond X, the cybersecurity firm prides itself on having partnered with numerous international corporations, including Microsoft, Uber, LinkedIn, UpWork, Airbnb, PayPal, and Google.
“Israeli companies like AU10TIX claim they adhere to the highest ethical standards and protect the privacy rights of those whose data it accesses” Silverstein wrote. “But when clients use these tools, even for what they determine is a legitimate purpose, they are buying into the technology and ideology which created them.”
Like its subsidiary AU10TIX, ICTS International also developed identity verification systems for airports. And the company’s leadership also has a sordid past, with Menachem Atzmon, ICTS International’s supervisory board chairman, being convicted in 1996 for campaign finance fraud while co-treasurer of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Digital rights under threat
Israel has long been accused of working with social media giants like Meta to target Palestinian and pro-Palestinian users.
According to 7amleh, Israel’s Justice Ministry Cyber Unit sends requests to companies such as Meta, Google, and YouTube to remove content Israel claims incites Palestinians. According to former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, these companies comply with 95% of Israel’s requests.
Prior to tech billionaire Elon Musk’s purchase of then-Twitter, scores of alleged Israeli bots mass-followed pro-Palestine accounts. Experts suggested this could be a form of censorship as fake followers trigger Twitter’s algorithm and can lead to the platform suspending an account.
Increased accusations of censorship occur during times of crisis and when Israel-Palestine makes international headlines. During Israel’s assault on Gaza, Al-Aqsa, and Sheikh Jarrah in 2021, Palestinian activists reported social media companies were removing their content on Israeli violence and ethnic cleansing for violating community guidelines. Social media users also report that they are being shadowbanned amid Israel’s current war on Gaza.
Not only have pro-Palestine accounts reported restricted activity, but 7amleh has documented over 103,000 instances of hate speech against Palestinians and incitement to violence against them in Hebrew since October 7, when the war began. The vast majority of the content, 7amleh notes, occurred on X.
7amleh’s director, Nashif, called on X to resolve the issues and prevent violence on its site. “These tweets, classified as hate speech and incitement, can potentially translate into real-world attacks on Palestinians, as previously seen with incitement on the same platform, leading to organized attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinian communities both in the West Bank and Israel. There is concern that similar attacks may occur again,” Nashif said in a statement.
And it’s not just settler violence that’s cause for concern. Israeli forces have been taking advantage of the current situation to crack down on activists. Since the war started, Israeli officials have targeted Palestinian citizens of Israel and even some Jewish Israelis simply for expressing support for Gaza online.
Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel is currently representing 74 Palestinian students and monitoring an additional 89 students enrolled in Israeli institutions facing disciplinary actions for their social media posts, with some having been suspended and even expelled.
“In most of these cases, students merely expressed solidarity with the Palestinian people in Gaza or quoted verses from the Quran, actions that lie well within the realm of freedom of expression and religion,” Adalah said in a press release. “These draconian actions were prompted by complaints received from politically far-right students’ groups.” Adalah has documented at least 80 arrests related to social media posts.
Twitter was once seen as a hub for free speech, with Musk even promising to keep the platform’s quintessential trait as a forum for debate intact when he took over. Yet that notion is being called into question as X partners with Israeli tech.
Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress News
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.