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This huge Chinese company is selling video surveillance systems to Iran

A new report sheds light on a shadowy industry where authoritarian states enthusiastically export surveillance technologies to repressive regimes around the world.

December 15, 2021
authoritarian toolbox concept illo
Ms Tech | Envato

A Chinese company is selling its surveillance technology to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, police, and military, according to a new report by IPVM, a surveillance research group. The firm, called Tiandy, is one of the world’s largest video surveillance companies, reporting almost $700 million in sales in 2020. The company sells cameras and accompanying AI-enabled software, including facial recognition technology, software that it claims can detect someone’s race, and “smart” interrogation tables for use alongside “tiger chairs,” which have been widely documented as a tool for torture.

The report is a rare look into some specifics of China’s strategic relationship with Iran and the ways in which the country disperses surveillance technology to other autocracies abroad.  

Tiandy’s “ethnicity tracking” tool, which has been widely challenged by experts as both inaccurate and unethical, is believed to be one of several AI-based systems the Chinese government uses to repress the Uyghur minority group in the country’s Xinjiang province, along with Huawei’s face recognition software, emotion-detection AI technologies, and a host of others. (Huawei has denied involvement in the region.)

The report, based on analysis of Tiandy’s publicly available social media posts and web marketing materials, shows that the company has signed a five-year contract in Iran, where it plans to have eight local staff members. The report also details that while Tiandy is privately owned, its CEO, Dai Lin, is a public supporter of the Communist Party, the ruling party in China, and the company is a major supplier to the Chinese government. While the exact package of surveillance capabilities Tiandy will sell to Iran is unclear, IPVM found Tiandy cameras in use by the Iranian firm Sairan—a “state-owned military electronics provider”—and at an undisclosed military base. Tiandy also touts several projects in Iran on its public website, including work with an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and with police in the northern city of Khomam.

Importantly, the report revealed that Tiandy’s networked video recorders (NVRs) are in use by the Iranian military and powered by chips produced by US manufacturer Intel, raising questions of whether the company has violated US sanctions on Iran. Penny Bruce, an Intel spokesperson, told MIT Technology Review, “We have no knowledge of the allegations raised, and we are investigating the situation.”

A budding partnership

The new report is among the few pieces of hard evidence for something experts have long suspected: that Iran is trying to build a system of digital control over its citizens, following China’s model and using Chinese tools. Censorship and surveillance are core tenets of that model, says Saeid Golkar, an expert in Iranian security and a professor at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. “The Islamic Republic is trying to create an internet like China, creating massive connectivity and then controlling it,” he says.

Iran has been riding China’s coattails in the realm of surveillance for some time. Iran was an early adopter of the Chinese “social credit” system, a comprehensive scoring of citizens’ financial, civic, and social activities. In 2010, the Shenzhen-based company ZTE signed a $130 million deal with the state-run Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI) that overlaid a ZTE surveillance system on government-managed telephone and internet infrastructure.

In March, China and Iran agreed to a 25-year strategic partnership, and though many of its details are undisclosed, the agreement stipulates increased military and trade cooperation between the two countries. IPVM’s report confirms some of those details, outlining how Iran is modernizing its ability to track its citizens.

Golkar says that until recently, much of the Iranian security apparatus was run by moderators and informants monitoring social media sites, but that is changing rapidly. “As Iran becomes more digitized, I’m sure that we will see more digital forms of oppression and surveillance,” says Golkar. Iran has a track record of imprisoning and torturing dissidents, and Tiandy’s product line appears well suited for furthering such tactics.

It’s essential to watch what China is trying to sell to other countries, and autocracies in particular, Golkar says: “Authoritarian regimes are following China, because China is running this game. Everything that China does, they will buy it or they will try to duplicate it.”

Exporting techno-authoritarianism

The Tiandy-Iran partnership marks an escalation of a worrying trend in which authoritarian states are increasingly using technologies to exert control over their citizens. At a high level, the partnership aligns with China’s diplomatic strategy. China has aggressively pursued closer ties with countries in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Intent on cementing global influence through its sprawling Belt and Road initiative, Chinese officials and companies strike deals to build ambitious development projects ranging from ports and highways to digital infrastructure. Huawei, for example, is responsible for building about 70% of the 4G networks on the continent of Africa.

Part of these projects is China’s vision for using technology to closely monitor the populace. Huawei, Alibaba, ZTE, and other Chinese companies run so-called “safe cities” and “smart cities” programs, claiming that their use of IoT and visual technologies aids police agencies. Huawei says its tools were used in over 700 cities as of 2019, with a focus on Asia and Africa. Simply put, exporting surveillance systems is a core part of China’s geopolitical strategy.

Russia also boasts a sophisticated domestic surveillance program and has been ramping up its exports to other countries. Moscow implemented one of the most expansive video systems in the world for public transit, schools, and roads last year, complete with facial recognition.

The program is powered by NTechLab, the original makers of the app FindFace, a precursor to modern facial recognition systems that allowed users to take pictures of faces and compare them with images on the internet. Its neural networks can now handle gaits, silhouettes, and cars as well.

“We want to work all over the world. We have a lot of projects in Latin America and the Middle East,” NTechLab founder Artem Kuharenko told MIT Technology Review last year. He said at the time that the two focus areas of NTechLab’s international work are retail and “safe and smart cities.”

Surveillance is by no means limited to authoritarian states, and “safe and smart cities” projects have found homes in many democracies. Still, techno-authoritarianism will likely prove difficult to control. As the Tiandy-Iran report underscores, even extensive sanctions on Iran did not keep Intel’s chips from powering Tiandy cameras. “This shows how difficult it is to control technology flows, especially for chips,” says Charles Rollet, the report’s author. “Supply chains in this area are complex and chipmakers have a hard time controlling exactly where all their chips end up.”

Whether Russia and China are competing or cooperating on the dispersal of surveillance systems to states around the world is, for the moment, a mystery. But one thing is clear: visual surveillance technologies are a priority in the authoritarian toolkit, and Russia and China are bringing other countries along with them. 

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