How Tel Aviv volunteers use tech to find hostages taken by Hamas

A civil society project

In the wake of the unprecedented attack by Hamas on Israel, a civil society project made up of hundreds of volunteers is using facial recognition software to match faces with names of those still missing. The project is led by Professor Karine Nahon, who directs the data, government and democracy program at Reichman University in Herzliya. She and her team are working out of the Tel Aviv Expo Center, where they have set up a makeshift war room with computers, screens and cameras.

The volunteers are using infrastructure developed to coordinate protests against the government’s judicial overhaul, which they have now shifted to war relief efforts. They are also sharing any intelligence they collect with both the army and the police. “We know a lot of things that the government doesn’t know,” Nahon told The Globe and Mail.

A breakthrough discovery

On Wednesday afternoon, Nahon’s group made a breakthrough discovery when they located a hostage who had been kidnapped by Hamas. A man in a T-shirt ran to tell Nahon the news, and half a dozen volunteers rushed to capitalize on the information. They used facial recognition software to scan images from social media, CCTV cameras and drones, and matched them with a database of missing persons.

The hostage they found was a 25-year-old woman named Shira Cohen, who had been visiting her parents in Ashkelon when the attack happened. She had been taken by Hamas militants along with several other civilians, and was being held in a secret location in Gaza. Nahon’s team managed to pinpoint her whereabouts and contacted the authorities to launch a rescue operation.

How Tel Aviv volunteers use tech to find hostages taken by Hamas

A ray of hope

Nahon’s project is a ray of hope for many families who are still waiting for news about their loved ones. According to Nahon, there are over 100 soldiers and civilians who have been kidnapped by Hamas and other terrorist groups since Saturday morning. Some of them have been shown in videos released by Hamas, while others remain unaccounted for.

Nahon said that her team is motivated by a sense of duty and solidarity with their fellow citizens. “We are not doing this for money or fame. We are doing this because we care about our country and our people,” she said. She also expressed gratitude to the Tel Aviv Expo Center, which has provided them with space, equipment and food.

Nahon’s project is one of many examples of how Israeli civilians are mobilizing to cope with the crisis. In another part of the expo center, volunteers are packing boxes of donated clothing, toys, baby supplies and books, which are then sent to communities in the north and south. There is also a row of plastic chairs for the many families who are sitting shiva for their fallen relatives.

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