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With protests mounting, officials turn to Beijing-backed tech companies that use local subsidiaries to sell a dystopian future

As protests over the killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini by the Islamic Republic’s morality police rack the country, Iran’s policymakers are considering replacing the unpopular police grouping with surveillance equipment. Such technologies, produced in China, are capable of picking individuals out of crowds, even at night, and can be used by the regime to build cases against protesters or women who break the dress code. 

Iran has hosted at least eight internationally sanctioned Chinese companies that sell technology used to spy on citizens for the past 19 years, according to public records. As early as 2003, Chinese purveyors of sophisticated surveillance technologies founded companies and obtained licenses to trade in Iran, documents from the official business registry Rooznameh Rasmi show. 

Tehran Bureau has uncovered six companies that sold face recognition technology, video surveillance, crowd surveillance, and phone call and text message monitoring to Iranian state security forces. Beyond one-off technology sales, these companies are training the Iranian government to adopt the Chinese government’s concept of “safe cities,” where millions of citizens live under constant surveillance and risk having their freedom of movement restricted by losing “social credits” for minor acts of civil disobedience. Many of these companies have been targeted by international sanctions for enabling mass surveillance and contributing to ethnic cleansing and widespread human rights abuses in China. They remain active in Iran.

1. Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co., Ltd.

Hikvision has been active in Iran since 1387 (2008), according to a Rooznameh Rasmi registration document, and was active through the year 1400 (2021). 

The company’s products include police surveillance systems as well as baby monitors, and are available in more than 190 countries, according to MIT Technology Review. Hikvision has close links with the Chinese government and has helped build China’s elaborate surveillance system in Xinjiang province. 

Hikvision camera’s license plate recognition capability

2. Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd.

Chinese tech giant Huawei and its subsidiary, mobile phone producer Honor Device have been active in Iran since 1385 (2006) and has posted activities this year, according to Rooznameh Rasmi documents. 

This company was one of 59 “Chinese military complex”-linked entities sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury based on an executive order signed by President Joe Biden last year. Previously, U.S. prosecutors issued an indictment against Huawei in which they accused the company of installing surveillance equipment in Iran to aid in arresting dissidents. 

Huawei is also actively pursuing expansion into other global markets, particularly states in Africa and Asia that are “middle-income” and “illiberal,” according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. Officials in Iran have openly embraced Huawei’s “safe city” concept, which involves the mass installation of face recognition and other AI technologies in public spaces. Many Iranian cities including Tehran and Kashan hosted conferences dedicated to “safe city” implementation in 2017, according to Fars news agency and the Kashan news portal.

3. ZTE

The Shenzhen-based company ZTE has been active in Iran since 1382 (2003), Rooznameh Rasmi documents show.

This company has been cited in numerous U.S. Treasury sanctions designations for conspiring to violate or violating sanctions on Iran. It reportedly sold the Telecommunication Co of Iran (TCI), Iran’s largest telecommunications provider, a powerful surveillance system capable of monitoring landline, mobile, and internet communications.

Most recently, the U.S. Commerce Department accused ZTE of using Far East Cable Factory as a middleman to sell products to Iran, according to reports by Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. Far East Cable Factory has been present in Iran since 1388 (2010), according to Rooznameh Rasmi documents.

4. Zhejiang Dahua Technology Co., Ltd

Dahua’s promotional videos for the Iranian market feature camera systems that identify shoppers in grocery stores and pedestrians outside elementary schools, then send their data to a “security center” for processing, all in the name of a “safer society and smarter living.” Dahua, a Chinese producer of video surveillance technologies, was implicated in Uighur oppression in China and was blacklisted by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 2019. In response, company representatives issued statements calling its blacklisting an indication of the strength of its technology.

Dahua features

Dahua face recognition

Dahua first entered the Iranian market in 2013 via a company called Ilya Tejarat Bam Tehran Trade Co.,  which trademarked Dahua’s name and logo, according to Rooznameh Rasmi.

Months later, Dahua itself started registering trademarks in the country, the documents further show. Dahua has been consistently active in the Iranian market since then and even has an official website. According to its Instagram account, as well as this video,  it participated in the International Police Safety and Security (IPAS) expo in Tehran in 2019.

Dahua IPAS expo 2019

According to its Facebook page, Dahua also sells security cameras by a German company called Zisher in Iran. One of Dahua’s products, the Hunter series camera, offers “Smart Tracking, Perimeter Protection, Video Metadata, Face Recognition and many other intelligent functions.”

Dahua Iran’s advert for German Zisher camera

A company called Sepahan Electronic Sina which was founded in 2017 also claims to be Dahua’s official rep in Iran. One of its founders, Ali Karimi claimed in an interview on the security-focused website Iran Alarm that Sepahan Electronic has been working as Dahua’s rep since 2013. 

5. Tiandy

Tiandy is a Chinese producer of video surveillance technology. According to Rooznameh Rasmi documents, Tiandy has been active in Iran from 1385 (2007) until at least 1395 (2016) through an affiliate. Many of its products contain Intel chips, whose sale in Iran is prohibited by United States sanctions. On a now archived version of its Iran website, Tiandy lists the IRGC among its clients.

On a post on its Instagram, Tiandy Iran says its cameras can “detect crowds”, “loitering”, “running” and “count people”. It also participated in the  2018 International Police Safety and Security expo in Tehran, according to its Instagram account.

One of the  noteworthy features of Tiandy cameras is the Starlight technology, which according to its website makes it possible to “capture a colorful and bright picture” in the dark and“ can help to capture moving objects in almost totally dark scene[s] with illumination as low as 0.0004Lux, which is revolutionary and edge-cutting i[n] this industry.”

Tiandy Super Starlight can capture a colorful and bright images in dark scenes. Video shows footage shot with a Tiandy Camera in Ukraine.

This would enable the police and military to film protesters in the dark and obtain a clear image of them, enabling their prosecution.The crowd detection feature also enables authorities to swiftly disperse any crowd before it becomes unmanageable.

This official promo video shows the zoom ability of Tiandy cameras.

While Tiandy itself does not appear in public records, documents show that its official representative Faragostar Electronic Iranian (Tiandy Iran), which openly uses the Tiandy logo in its marketing activities, has been active since 1385 (2007).  It became its Chinese parent company’s official rep in the Middle East

There are only a handful of public records available for Faragostar, but its establishment documents show its founding board members were Farzad Nouri  (CEO) and Babak Mir-Saeed Qazi, who has ties to the IRGC, Government, banks, and bonyads like EIKO (Setad) and Astan Qods Razavi, according to an online version of his resume.

6. Tencent

In China, Tencent, along with the online marketplace Alibaba “are among the firms that assist authorities in hunting down criminal suspects, silencing dissent and creating surveillance cities,” according to the Wall Street Journal

Incorporated in the Cayman Islands, Tencent has been present in Iran since 1387 (2008), according to Rooznameh Rasmi documents.

Tencent has close ties to the Chinese government and reportedly “received funding from the Ministry of State Security early on in its foundation,” according to a 2020 Foreign Policy magazine report.

The company has trademarked several things in Iran including the messaging app/ surveillance tool Wechat, which was widely in use in Iran in 2009 (1388) and allowed users to “hang out” with other WeChat users in their area by shaking their mobile phone device. Tencent also owns the fintech app WeChat Pay and the instant messaging service QQ, also caught spying on users in 2021. 

Its subsidiaries Iflix Sdn Bhd (Malaysia), Miniclip SA (Switzerland), and Supercell Oy (Finland) are also currently active in Iran, according to Rooznameh Rasmi documents:

7. Zhejiang Uniview Technologies Co., Ltd.,

Uniview is China’s third-largest video surveillance manufacturer. According to IPVM, which tracks information on video surveillance worldwide, Uniview is yet another manufacturer of “racist software used for tracking Uyghurs” by using face recognition software specifically calibrated to target this ethnic minority.

This company has been active in Iran since1395 (2017 ), according to Rooznameh Rasmi documents.

Uniview Starlight capability

Uniview camera’s zoom ability demonstrated capturing the Plasco Building fire

8. FiberHome Telecommunication Technologies Co., Ltd

This Chinese company  was placed on the US Commerce Department Entity list for being “complicit” in alleged human rights abuses.  It has been active in Iran since at least 1387 (2008), according to Rooznameh Rasmi. 

According to Rooznameh Rasmi, Fiberhome has patented numerous technologies in Iran since 2016, including fiberoptic cable, VPN protocol, and ethernet SFP  electrical module and  method for realizing synchronization of Ethernet. All these technologies are involved in affecting internet-based data transfers and could potentially be used to monitor these processes.

This post is also available in: فارسی (Persian)

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