As Iran tries to quell anti-regime protests, human rights advocates and lawmakers are concerned that Iranian authorities may turn to sophisticated video surveillance technology provided by a Chinese company using US-made chips.
Tiandy Technologies has sold its surveillance cameras to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and other security services, according to a Tiandy website and social media posts. Intel Corp., one of the largest semiconductor companies in the United States, liza the Chinese company as a partner, providing Intel-made processors for some of Tiandy’s video recording equipment.
Tiandy is one of several Chinese companies at the center of China’s vast internal surveillance network, say experts and human rights advocates. Tiandy says it provides facial recognition software to the Chinese authorities designed to to identify Uighurs or other ethnic minorities, as well as “smart” interrogation tables.
Now, Tiandy’s operations both inside China and Iran are under scrutiny in Washington.
In a letter sent Wednesday to the Biden administration and obtained by NBC News, Sen. Marco Rubio said the company’s trade deal with Iran “raises serious questions about whether Tiandy’s products are being used against peaceful Iranian protesters.”
The Florida Republican, writing to the State, Treasury and Commerce departments, urged the administration to consider whether the company was violating US laws that require sanctions against companies responsible for or complicit in human rights violations.
“I request that you determine and report to Congress whether Tiandy has engaged in conduct that may meet the criteria for designation pursuant to authorities provided by Congress,” Rubio wrote.
When asked about Tiandy, a White House National Security Council spokesperson said in an email: “We do not anticipate sanctions. We will continue to hold individuals and entities accountable for supporting human rights violations by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Iran.”
A State Department spokesman offered the same statement.
Tiandy and the Iranian UN mission did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, said the embassy could not speak on behalf of private Chinese companies. But he said it was “absurd” to present Chinese technology as a security threat.
“As we all know, taking advantage of modern scientific and technological development, such as the use of big data and surveillance cameras, to improve social governance is a common practice of the international community, and the United States is no exception,” the spokesperson said. .
A US-based security industry research firm and trade publication, Internet Protocol Video Market (IPVM), first reported on Tiandy’s work with Iran in 2021, including a five-year contract. with the Tehran government, according to social media posts and the company. website.
“Tiandy Technologies is the most dangerous Chinese company most people have never heard of,” said Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense Democracies think tank, which advocates for a hard line on China.
“Companies like Tiandy Technologies, which directly enable human rights atrocities, should be shut down,” Singleton said.
a new report From FDD written by Singleton argues that the Biden administration should examine whether Tiandy deserves US sanctions related to human rights in both China and Iran, and that other governments with similar laws, including the UK, should also weigh potential sanctions.
It is unclear how Iran is using Tiandy’s technology, precisely what equipment it is providing, and how the company may be advising the government on its use. But experts say Iran has sought to emulate China’s use of digital technology to tighten its control and counter criticism and dissent.
The United States has already imposed a series of sanctions on other Chinese tech companies and accused telecommunications giant Huawei and other companies of exporting technology abroad that could be used as tools for domestic surveillance, including in Iran.
Last week, the Biden administration effectively banned the sale or import of new equipment from several Chinese surveillance companies, but Tiandy Technologies was not named.
But Tiandy Technologies is not currently under US sanctions or export controls.
Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Chinese surveillance technology tends to be less expensive and more attractive to some authoritarian governments.
“The problem in authoritarian countries is that there are obviously no regulations, and in fact they are specifically bought for surveillance purposes,” Wang said.
She said she was not familiar with Tiandy’s operations in Iran, but said: “We have argued for some time that these surveillance companies need to be subject to global sanctions and fast before these types of systems take root in these places.” .
Tiandy, a private company headquartered in the northern city of Tianjin, is among the top video surveillance companies in China and the world, with annual sales revenue of more than $800 million in 2021, according to an industry report. poll. The company says it has branches in more than 60 countries.
Tiandy’s chief executive, Dai Lin, serves as the company’s Chinese Communist Party secretary and was pictured holding a banner encouraging people to “follow the party’s lead,” according to social media. publications first reported by IPVM.
According to Intel Corp.’s website, the US firm provides Celeron, Core and Xeon processors for Tiandy’s network video recording systems, which allow users to connect thousands of closed-circuit cameras.
It is unclear to what extent Intel-powered devices are used in Iran and China.
Intel gave Tiandy a strategic partner for the security industry grant in 2018, and the Intel Application Innovation Award in 2019, according to Tiandy’s website.
In response to a query from NBC News, Intel spokeswoman Penny Bruce said that as a US company, Intel “complies with all applicable laws, including export control regulations.”
“Where Intel products have been re-exported or transferred by a third party, or incorporated into a new item by a third party, the responsibility for compliance with US export regulations rests with the third party,” Bruce said.
As for Intel products potentially linked to the crackdown in Iran or China, “we take these allegations seriously and are investigating the matter,” he added.
In the past two years, Intel Corp. has joined other technology companies in lobbying Congress to support legislation that allocates billions of dollars to semiconductor manufacturing. The CHIPS and Science Act became law in August.
Given Intel’s association with Tiandy, FDD’s Singleton said the Commerce Department and other US government agencies “should reconsider their relationship with Intel until such time as a proper and independent investigation of Intel’s activities can be conducted.” Intel and its possible support of other Chinese companies that allow rights atrocities.
Cameras for Heathrow airport
The United States has warned American companies and allies not to do business with Chinese tech companies that may have ties to the crackdown inside China or pose a potential cybersecurity risk.
Tiandy says he designed and installed cameras for Britain’s Heathrow airport, according to his website. When contacted by NBC News, a Heathrow airport spokesman said “we do not have a relationship with this company” but declined to elaborate.
When asked about Tiandy’s relationship with Heathrow airport, a UK government official said the UK government is “committed to supporting UK companies to engage with Chinese technology companies in a way that reflects UK values.
“We are deeply concerned about China’s use of high-tech surveillance to disproportionately target Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” the official said.
The UK government has published guidance for British companies to help them “negotiate the ethical, legal and business issues they may encounter in China or when working with Chinese companies,” the official added.
‘Tiger chairs’ and interrogation tables
Most of Tiandy’s 2,000 employees work at the company’s headquarters in Tianjin, according to the company’s website, but the company also operates a small office in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, where rights groups Human rights and Western governments say the Uyghurs face severe repression. .
The Biden administration has described China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims as genocide, accusing Beijing of carrying out a campaign of mass detention and sterilization of minority groups in the Xinjiang region. Human rights groups have used similar language. China has repeatedly denied the allegations.
Tiandy’s Xinjiang website says Chinese police and judiciary use the company’s “interrogation solution.” The firm, in a May 2021 post, promotes an “intelligence interrogation desk” that offers “one-click interrogation” and “proofreading” of transcripts, which it says “greatly improves interrogation efficiency.”
The company has published Photos of the interrogation table in front of “tiger chairs”, which have shackles and handcuffs. Human Rights Watch, citing accounts of former detainees, has accused Chinese police use to tie Uyghurs to chairs for hours and even days to immobilize them during interrogations. China has denied the allegations.
Like other video technology companies in China, Tiandy’s software includes an ethnicity tracking tool that can supposedly digitally identify someone’s race. Tiandy is publicly available software development kit from July 2020 presents “career” analyticsproducing results like “yellow”, “black” and “the Uyghurs”.