The promise of surveillance profits outweighs sanctions for U.S. and China firms
If there are pressure campaigns or government sanctions capable of dissuading China from its expansionist biometric surveillance policies, they have yet to be announced.
Chinese surveillance camera maker Tiandy is the focus of new sanctions by the United States after the company reportedly sold hardware to Iran’s feared paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Another biometric firm, U.S.-based Thermo Fisher, sells to the Chinese government. While there is a pressure campaign to end the sales, there is little evidence it is having an effect.
In the case of Tiandy sales, Iran has societal rules and punishments that are almost medieval. A woman who refused to wear fundamentalism-defined modest clothing last year died while in police custody.
Her death after being arrested for not wearing a scarf, has fomented popular anger. In turn, that heat reportedly has resulted in the import of sophisticated Tiandy video surveillance hardware and software by the Iranian government.
Tiandy, even in China a major presence in the industry, had escaped economic sanctions by Washington. But a successful pressure campaign by rights activists late last year changed that.
The company reportedly has been commercially involved in rights abuses in China and has sold U.S.-made biometrics systems to the Revolutionary Guard. It does not help that Tiandy reportedly is controlled by China’s authoritarian government.
There is no evidence that either the pressure or sanctions have or will have their desired effect.
The same – so far – is true for campaigns to force DNA biometrics firm Thermo Fisher to completely cut ties with China, which it reportedly has not done.
According to reporting by non-profit investigative reporting outlet The Intercept, Thermo Fisher has signed multiple sales with Chinese officials.
Known sales have been small; less than $200,000 each.
Indeed, asked to comment on its dealings with Beijing, a spokesperson replied, in email, that, “We have sold limited product in the region to match only the needs of routine police casework and forensic investigations.”
The company will monitor the relationship for possible ethical red flags and work with the U.S. government to make sure its products are being used as intended, the spokesperson wrote.
The Chinese government continues to build the most complete internal biometrics database in the world. In some respects, it already is the largest such database in the world.
Rights activists have been calling attention to the use of Thermo Fisher DNA biometric products in Tibet, an Asian nation annexed by Beijing. The devices reportedly are part of a mass collection effort in Tibet.
Members of Congress last year asked the company’s CEO, Marc Casper, for information about his sales in Tibet. No change in policy is apparent.