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Report Indicates Israel Uses WhatsApp Data in Targeted Killings of Palestinians

“By using WhatsApp, people are risking their lives,” one human rights advocate said.

A displaced Palestinian man uses an eSIM card to speak to relatives on a hill in Rafah, in southern Gaza.

The Palestinian digital rights group Sada Social on Saturday called for an investigation into Israel’s alleged use of WhatsApp user data to target Palestinians with its AI system, Lavender.

The group, which is affiliated with the Al Jazeera Media Institute and Access Now, accused Meta, which owns WhatsApp, of fueling “the ‘Lavender’ artificial intelligence system used by the Israeli military to kill Palestinian individuals within the Gaza enclave.”

As Common Dreams reported in April, the Israel Defense Forces has relied on AI systems including Lavender to target people Israel believes to be Hamas members.

At +972 Magazine, Israeli journalist Yuval Abraham wrote that a current commander of an elite Israeli intelligence unit pushed for the use of AI to choose targets in Gaza. The commander wrote in a guide book to create the system that “hundreds and thousands” of features can be used to select targets, “such as being in a WhatsApp group with a known militant, changing cell phone every few months, and changing addresses frequently.”

Sada Social asserted that it had found the Lavender system uses WhatsApp data to select targets.

“The reports monitored by the Sada Social Center indicate that one of the inputs to the ‘Lavender’ system relies on data collected from WhatsApp groups containing names of Palestinians or activists who are wanted by ‘Israel,'” said the group in a press release. “The Israeli Lavender system, supported by artificial intelligence, identifies Palestinians by tracking their communications via WhatsApp or the groups they join.”

The mention of Israel’s use of WhatsApp data in Abraham’s reporting also caught the attention last month of Paul Biggar, founder of Tech for Palestine.

“There’s a lot wrong with this—I’m in plenty of WhatsApp groups with strangers, neighbors, and in the carnage in Gaza you bet people are making groups to connect,” wrote Biggar. “But the part I want to focus on is whether they get this information from Meta. Meta has been promoting WhatsApp as a ‘private’ social network, including ‘end-to-end’ encryption of messages.”

“Providing this data as input for Lavender undermines their claim that WhatsApp is a private messaging app,” he wrote. “It is beyond obscene and makes Meta complicit in Israel’s killings of ‘pre-crime’ targets and their families, in violation of international humanitarian law and Meta’s publicly stated commitment to human rights. No social network should be providing this sort of information about its users to countries engaging in ‘pre-crime.'”

Others have pointed out that Israel may have acquired WhatsApp data through means other than a leak by Meta.

Journalist Marc Owen Jones said the question of “Meta’s potential role in this is important,” but noted that informants, captured devices, and spyware could be used by Israel to gain Palestinian users’ WhatsApp data.

Bahraini activist Esra’a Al Shafei, founder of Majal.org, told the Middle East Monitor that the reports that WhatsApp user data has been used by the IDF’s AI machine demonstrate why privacy advocates warn against the collection and storage of metadata, “particularly for apps like WhatsApp, which falsely advertise their product as fully private.”

“Even though WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted, and claims to not have any backdoors to any government, the metadata alone is sufficient to expose detailed information about users, especially if the user’s phone number is attached to other Meta products and related activities,” Al Shafei said. “This is why the IDF could plausibly utilize metadata to track and locate WhatsApp users.”

While Meta and WhatsApp may not necessarily be collaborating with Israel, she said, “by the very act of collecting this information, they’re making themselves vulnerable to abuse and intrusive external surveillance.”

In turn, “by using WhatsApp, people are risking their lives,” she added.

A WhatsApp spokesperson told Anadolu last month that “WhatsApp has no backdoors and we do not provide bulk information to any government,” adding that “Meta has provided consistent transparency reports and those include the limited circumstances when WhatsApp information has been requested.”

Al Shafei said Meta must “fully investigate” how WhatsApp’s metadata may be used “to track, harm, or kill its users throughout Palestine.”

“WhatsApp is used by billions of people and these users have a right to know what the dangers are in using the app,” she said, “or what WhatsApp and Meta will do to proactively protect them from such misuse.”

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