A Chinese company is selling its surveillance technology to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, police and military, according to a new report from surveillance research group IPVM. The company, called Tiandy, is one of the world’s largest video surveillance companies, with sales of nearly $700 million in 2020. The company sells cameras and software accompanying artificial intelligence, including facial recognition technology, and software that it claims can detect sweat Someone, and “smart” interrogation tables to be used alongside the widely documented “tiger chairs” as a tool of torture.
The report is a rare look at some of the details of China’s strategic relationship with Iran and the ways the country is spreading surveillance technology to other authoritarian regimes abroad.
Tiandi’s “race-tracking” tool, which has been widely challenged by experts as both inaccurate and unethical, is believed to be one of several artificial intelligence-based systems used by the Chinese government to suppress the Uyghur minority in the country’s Xinjiang province, along with Together with Huawei. Facial recognition software, artificial intelligence technologies to detect emotions, and a host of others. (Huawei has denied any role in the region.)
The report, which is based on an analysis of Tiandi’s social media posts and publicly available online marketing materials, shows that the company has signed a five-year contract in Iran, where it plans to hire eight local employees. The report also details that while Tiandy is privately owned, its CEO, Dai Lin, is a public supporter of the Communist Party, China’s ruling party, and the company is a major supplier to the Chinese government. While the exact package of surveillance capabilities that Tiandy will sell to Iran is unclear, IPVM has found that Tiandy’s cameras are used by the Iranian company Sairan – a “state-owned military electronics provider” – and at an undisclosed military base. Tiandi also promotes several projects in Iran on its public website, including working with an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and with police in the northern city of Khammam.
More importantly, the report revealed that Tiandy’s network video recorders (NVRs) are used by the Iranian military and backed by chips produced by US Intel, raising questions about whether the company has violated US sanctions on Iran. “We have no knowledge of the allegations that have been raised, and we are investigating the situation,” Intel spokeswoman Penny Bruce told the MIT Technology Review.
The new report is among some strong evidence of something experts have long suspected: that Iran is trying to build a system of digital control of its citizens, following China’s example and using Chinese tools. Saeed Golkar, an expert on Iranian security and a professor at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, says censorship and surveillance are fundamental principles of this model. “The Islamic Republic is trying to create an internet like China, create massive connectivity and then take control of it,” he says.