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Storebrand divests from IBM over supply of biometrics to Israel

One of Norway’s largest financial services companies has divested from IBM over the role its biometric database technologies play in maintaining illegal Israeli settlements, in a move that could set a precedent for other European investors.

Storebrand said the global tech giant was providing biometric databases to the Israeli government that were being “used to implement apartheid” in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in its Q1 2024 sustainability report.

Storebrand – Norway’s second largest asset manager after the oil fund – claimed it tried to “enter a dialogue” with IBM about its role in the region but the tech company was “not willing to discuss” the issue.

As a result, Storebrand, which manages over £74.5bn in assets and investments, sold the 750,000 shares it held in the company in March 2024, which had a reported value of approximately £110m.

Stig-Øyvind Blystad, senior vice-president of communications for Storebrand, confirmed the decision in an email to Computer Weekly.

“We believe the company contributes to maintaining illegal settlements on the West Bank – and thus contributes to violations of human rights,” wrote Blystad.

“IBM supplies a biometric database to Israeli authorities that records ethnic and religious identity. Storebrand Asset Management considers that the database contributes to discrimination and segregation of Palestinians. 

“As an investor, Storebrand Asset Management has tried to enter a dialogue with IBM Corp about the matter, but the company has not been willing to discuss this,” continued Blystad. “It has therefore not been possible to influence the company, which has therefore been excluded from Storebrand’s investment universe.”

IBM supplies a biometric database to Israeli authorities that records ethnic and religious identity. Storebrand Asset Management considers that the database contributes to discrimination and segregation of Palestinians Stig-Øyvind Blystad, Storebrand

This week, three countries – Ireland, Spain and the financial service firm’s home of Norway – decided to recognise Palestine as an independent state. The move came amid growing concerns about the scale of civilian deaths during Israel’s war on Gaza.

Earlier this month, the International Criminal Court announced that it was applying for arrest warrants against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defence minister, as well as several senior Hamas officials, on charges of war crimes.

Since the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October 2023, in which just over 1,200 Israeli citizens, mostly civilians, were killed and another 250 were taken hostage, more than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in the ensuing Israeli attack on Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Israel is currently in the midst of an assault on the southern city of Rafah, an attack that has been the subject of widespread international condemnation.

Storebrand’s decision has added increased scrutiny on the role European and American companies, and in particular tech giants, have played in directly or indirectly facilitating human rights abuses in the region.

In December, Facebook and Instagram owner Meta was criticised by global NGO Human Rights Watch for systemically “silencing voices in support of Palestine and Palestinian human rights” on its platforms since the beginning of Israel’s invasion.

Last month, US-based Google employees staged protests in relation to a $1.2bn contract the tech giant has with the Israeli government and military in conjunction with Amazon to provide cloud computing infrastructure, artificial intelligence (AI) and other technology services.

Meanwhile, an investigation by +972 Magazine in April revealed the Israeli military’s use of an AI-based program known as “Lavender” to identify suspected militants for military strikes, despite the system having little oversight and an alleged error rate of 10%.

It goes alongside another AI system – nicknamed “The Gospel” – which can generate buildings for the military to target at a huge speed and which was facilitating a “mass assassination factory”, according to one former Israeli intelligence officer.

Concerns have been raised over tech companies’ role in potential human rights abuses in the West Bank for several years, with the UN releasing a list of 112 businesses in 2020 that it claimed have “directly and indirectly, enabled, facilitated and profited from the construction and growth of the settlements” in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

On the list were several tech giants, including the likes of Expedia, Air BnB and TripAdvisor, which rented hotels or rooms or managed reviews for illegal settlements, as well as telecoms firm Motorola.

Many tech firms refuse to engage with questions on their human rights record or policies, however.

A recent survey by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) of 104 tech companies operating in the region asking them how they safeguard human rights ended up with just four respondents, an “unprecedented” low. The group registered a 29% response rate for a similar survey it did in regard to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“Tech companies, with a few exceptions, are opaque and largely unwilling to provide information and disclosures, especially around this conflict, in a way that is incomparable to most other sectors,” said Gayatri Khandhadai, head of technology and human rights at the BHRRC.

Increasingly, we’re seeing the central role that technology is playing in conflict, and this role is only going to get more embedded as we go forward Gayatri Khandhadai, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

“Increasingly, we’re seeing the central role that technology is playing in conflict, and this role is only going to get more embedded as we go forward.”

“With the increasing focus of the ICC, if I were a company or an investor, I would start worrying about what this means for me.”

She added: “We are pleased to see Storebrand setting a positive example for how investors should act in conflict situations, where heightened human rights due diligence and swift action (or lack thereof) from private sector actors can have life or death consequences.

“The situation in Gaza is catastrophic and businesses have an immediate responsibility to ensure they are not contributing to or exacerbating the scale of human suffering in the region.

“Doing business within this context has been considered high risk for decades, so the private sector has no excuse for being unprepared.”

Meredith Veit, a fellow technology and human rights researcher at the BHRRC, added that Storebrand so openly citing human rights in its divestment decision was “a huge statement”, the “ripple effect” of which could push other investors to “follow suit”.

IBM did not respond to a request for comment.

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