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.