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Chinese firm selling surveillance tech to Iran comes under scrutiny

Tiandy is “the most dangerous Chinese company most people have never heard of,” said one expert.
Tiandy Technologies Co.'s Surveillance Systems In The Chinese City Of Tianjin
A surveillance camera at Tiandy headquarters in Tianjin, China, on Feb. 22, 2019. Giulia Marchi / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

As Iran tries to stifle anti-regime protests, human rights advocates and lawmakers are concerned Iranian authorities can draw on sophisticated video surveillance technology provided by a Chinese company that uses U.S. manufactured chips.

Tiandy Technologies has sold its surveillance cameras to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and other security services, according to a Tiandy website and social media posts. Intel Corp., one of America’s major semiconductor firms, lists 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 domestic surveillance network, experts and human rights advocates say. Tiandy says it provides facial recognition software to Chinese authorities designed to identify Uyghurs or other ethnic minorities, as well as “smart” interrogation tables.

Now Tiandy’s operations both inside China and in Iran are coming 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 commercial arrangement with Iran “raises serious questions about whether Tiandy’s products are being used against peaceful Iranian protesters.”

An unveiled woman stands on top of a vehicle as thousands make their way towards Aichi cemetery in Saqaez, Mahsa Amini's hometown in Iranian Kurdistan, to mark 40 days since her death, on Oct. 26, 2022.
An unveiled woman stands on top of a vehicle on Oct. 26 as thousands make their way toward Aichi cemetery in Saqqez, Mahsa Amini's hometown in Iranian Kurdistan, to mark 40 days since her death.via Twitter / AFP - Getty Images

The Florida Republican, writing to the State, Treasury and Commerce departments, urged the administration to consider whether the company was violating U.S. laws that mandate sanctions on companies responsible for or complicit in human rights violations. 

“I request that you determine and report to the Congress whether Tiandy has engaged in conduct that may meet the criteria for designation pursuant to the authorities provided by Congress,” Rubio wrote.

When asked about Tiandy, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said in an email: “We don’t preview sanctions. We will continue to hold persons and entities accountable for supporting human rights violations by the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and Iran.”

A State Department spokesperson offered the same statement.

Tiandy and the Iranian mission to the UN did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, said the embassy could not speak on behalf of Chinese private companies. But he said it was “absurd” to portray Chinese technology as a security threat.

“As we all know, harnessing modern scientific and technological development, like using big data and camera surveillance, to improve social governance is a common practice of the international community, and the United States is no exception,” the spokesperson said.

A U.S.-based security industry research firm and trade publication, the Internet Protocol Video Market (IPVM), first reported Tiandy’s work with Iran in 2021, including a five-year contract with the government in Tehran, based on social media posts and the company’s 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 of Democracies think tank, which advocates for a tough line on China.

“Companies like Tiandy Technologies that directly enable human rights atrocities should be put out of business,” Singleton said.

A new report from FDD authored by Singleton makes the case that the Biden administration should examine whether Tiandy is deserving of U.S. sanctions related to human rights in both China and Iran, and that other governments with similar laws, including the United Kingdom, should also weigh possible sanctions.

It’s not clear 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 grip and counter critics and dissent.

The U.S. already has imposed a slew of sanctions on other Chinese tech companies and has accused telecom giant Huawei and other firms 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 a number of Chinese surveillance firms, but Tiandy Technologies was not named.

Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Chinese surveillance technology tends to be less expensive and more attractive for some authoritarian governments.

“The problem in authoritarian countries is that obviously there are no regulations, and in fact, they are being purchased specifically for the purpose of surveillance,” Wang said. 

Tiandy Technologies Co.'s Surveillance Systems In The Chinese City Of Tianjin
Surveillance cameras manufactured by Tiandy Technologies Co. operate in Tianjin, China, on Feb. 22, 2019. Giulia Marchi / Bloomberg via Getty Images

She said she was not familiar with Tiandy’s operations in Iran but said, “We have argued for some time that these surveillance companies have to be subjected to sanctions globally and fast before these kind of systems become entrenched in these places.”

Tiandy, a privately owned firm based in the northern city of Tianjin, ranks 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 survey. 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 in a photo with a banner encouraging people to “follow the party’s lead,” according to social media posts first reported by IPVM.

According to Intel Corp.’s website, the U.S. firm provides Celeron, Core and Xeon processors for Tiandy’s networked video recording systems, which allow users to link up thousands of closed-circuit cameras.

It’s unclear to what degree Intel-powered devices are being used in Iran and China.

Intel gave Tiandy a security industry strategic partner award in 2018, and the Intel Application Innovation Award in 2019, according to Tiandy’s website.

In response to a query from NBC News, Intel spokesperson Penny Bruce said that as a U.S. company, Intel “complies with all applicable laws, including export control regulations.”

“Where Intel products have been re-exported or transferred, or incorporated into a new item by a third party, responsibility to comply with U.S. export regulations is with the third party,” Bruce said. 

As for Intel’s products potentially linked to repression in Iran or in China, “we take these allegations seriously and are looking into the matter,” she added.

Over the past two years, Intel Corp. joined other tech companies in lobbying Congress to support legislation allocating billions of dollars toward semiconductor manufacturing. The CHIPS and Science Act was signed into law in August.

Given Intel’s partnership with Tiandy, Singleton at FDD said the Commerce Department and other U.S. government agencies “should reconsider their relationship with Intel until such time that a proper, independent investigation can be conducted of Intel’s activities and its potential support to other Chinese firms enabling human rights atrocities.”

Cameras for Heathrow Airport

The United States has warned U.S. companies and allies about doing business with Chinese tech companies that may have links to repression inside China or pose a potential risk to cyber security.

Tiandy says it designed and installed cameras for Britain’s Heathrow Airport, according to its website. When contacted by NBC News, a Heathrow Airport spokesperson said “we do not have a relationship with this company” but declined to elaborate.

Asked about Tiandy’s relationship with Heathrow Airport, a U.K. government official said the British government is “committed to supporting U.K. businesses to engage with Chinese technology firms in a way that reflects the UK’s values.”

“We are deeply concerned by China’s use of high-tech surveillance to disproportionately target Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” the official said. 

The U.K. government has published guidance for British businesses to help them “negotiate the ethical, legal and commercial questions they may encounter in China or when working with Chinese businesses,” the official added.

‘Tiger chairs’ and interrogation tables

Most of Tiandy’s 2,000 employees work out of the firm’s headquarters in Tianjin, according to the firm’s website, but the firm also operates a small office in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, where human rights groups and Western governments say 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, touts an “intelligence interrogation table” that offers “one-click interrogation” and transcript “proofreading,” which it says “greatly improves the efficiency of interrogation.”

The company has posted photos of the interrogation table in front of “tiger chairs,” which have leg irons and handcuffs. Human Rights Watch, citing accounts from former detainees, has accused Chinese police of strapping Uyghurs into the 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 supposedly can digitally identify someone’s race. Tiandy’s publicly available software development kit from July 2020 features “race” analytics, producing results like “yellow,” “black” and “the Uyghurs."