Controversial Tech Firms Look to Profit From COVID-19

This report documents the controversial companies currently advertising surveillance technologies in response to the outbreak of COVID-19.
Samuel Woodhams

Key Findings:

13 controversial companies are currently promoting their surveillance technologies in a bid to help slow the spread of COVID-19, including:

  • 10 Chinese companies, including seven that are on the US Department of Commerce’s ‘Entity List’
  • Russia’s NTech Labs and Israel’s AnyVision are promoting their facial recognition technologies
  • Spain’s Mollitiam Industries is promoting Open Source Intelligence Solutions

Introduction

In response to the outbreak of COVID-19, controversial tech companies have started to market their invasive surveillance tools to governments, health authorities and private companies in a bid to help slow the spread of the virus.

The controversial Israeli cyber-intelligence company, NSO Group, recently received widespread attention following the announcement of FLEMING, an “an epidemiological analytics system,” that would allegedly help authorities track the spread of the virus more accurately.

More recently, an investigation by Reuters found several other cyber-intelligence companies actively promoting their technology as a means of fighting the virus.

These companies are not alone. As this report shows, many of the world’s most controversial companies have sought to capitalise on the pandemic and sell their surveillance technologies to governments and businesses around the world.

Many of the technologies offered as ‘solutions’ have not been proven to work.

The World Health Organisation has already outlined the limitations of temperature screening, stating that: “infected individuals may be in incubation period, may not express apparent symptoms early on in the course of the disease, or may dissimulate fever through the use of antipyretics.”

“Such measures require substantial investments for what may bear little benefits” – World Health Organisation

Not only may these ‘solutions’ be limited in their effectiveness, they also raise obvious concerns about the rise of biometric surveillance, mission creep and growing digital authoritarianism.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation: “Thermal cameras are still surveillance cameras. Spending money to acquire and install infrastructure like so-called “fever detection” cameras increases the likelihood that the hardware will long outlive its usefulness during this public health crisis.”

Companies are not only looking to sell their thermal screening technologies, however. We have also documented companies promoting facial recognition technology, surveillance drones and social media monitoring tools as potential remedies to the public health crisis.

“Biometric mass surveillance systems can exacerbate structural inequalities, accelerate unlawful profiling, have a chilling effect on freedoms of expression and assembly, and put limits on everyone’s ability to participate in public and social activities” – EDRi

The pandemic has proved to be a catalyst for a huge expansion of mass surveillance around the world. To see full details of new digital tracking, physical surveillance and contact tracing measures being implemented around the world, see our regularly updated COVID-19 Digital Rights Tracker.

China

Chinese companies have long been at the forefront of developing sophisticated surveillance technologies. Although many of these companies have lucrative trade deals with authorities and businesses in China, they are also dominant in markets around the world, including in the US and UK.

Several of these companies were placed on the the US Department of Commerce’s ‘Entity List’ in October 2019 due to their alleged activity in Xinjiang, where a complex web of surveillance technologies has supported the forced imprisonment of an estimated 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other minority Turkic Muslim groups.

According to the ruling, the companies were placed on the list because of their involvement “in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the XUAR.”

The ‘Entity List’ greatly restricts a company’s ability to trade with US corporations, although it appears several of the companies have attempted to bypass these restrictions by using their American subsidiaries.

6 companies currently on the US trade blacklist are now actively promoting COVID-19-related surveillance technologies.

Hikvision

Notable Products:

  • Thermal Screening Technology
  • Facial Recognition Software
  • Mask Detection Solution

Hikvision is one of the largest manufacturers of facial recognition cameras in the world. According to their website, they earned over $8.2 billion in 2019.

The company, which has British and American subsidiaries, was placed on on the ‘Entity List’ following a series of revelations about the company’s activity in Xinjiang.

In 2018, for example, the Financial Times reported that Hikvision had sold 1,000 facial recognition cameras to be placed at mosques in Xinjiang.

Reports by IVPM also suggested that the company was advertising facial recognition cameras allegedly capable of identifying Uyghurs.

The company has denied any wrongdoing in the region, telling the The Global Times that: “We have never done any inappropriate actions in Xinjiang.”

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the company has been actively marketing their thermal scanning technology. At the time of writing, 5 of the 9 products displayed on the banner of their UK homepage are related to COVID-19. On their American website, all of the products listed on the homepage are linked to the virus.

Products include a Density Control System, MinMoe, a “touch free temperature screening solution,” a Mask Detection Solution, and a webinar on the utility of using thermal imaging technologies in response to the virus.

In the US, the company has donated to a non-profit to help provide food to vulnerable communities affected by the pandemic. Marianne Chew, Hikvision USA Director of Marketing, said: “Working together, we can make a difference. Hikvision USA is very grateful to have the opportunity to work with Mission 500, Feeding America, and others in the security industry to support children and families in need.”

In a report by Nine News Sydney, Hikvision’s thermal imaging cameras also appear prominently.

In the UK, the company’s thermal screening technologies already appear to be in use. In a BBC digital report, Hikvision’s cameras are present in a shot depicting the use of thermal scanning technology as a way of protecting workers at Bournemouth Airport.

Screenshot from BBC website showing thermal cameras being testing at Bournemouth airport Screenshot from BBC, March 10, 2020.

Dahua Technologies

Notable Products:

  • ‘Retail Epidemic Safety Protection Solution’
  • Thermal Screening Technology

Dahua Technologies, which also has an American subsidiary, Dahua Technology USA, is a video surveillance company with headquarters in Hangzhou, China. The company has distribution partners in over 180 countries and, in 2017, its sales amounted to $2.89 billion.

Dahua Technologies was placed on the Bureau of Industry & Security’s ‘Entity List‘ alongside Hikvision on October 9, 2019, after it was “determined by the U.S. Government to be acting contrary to the foreign policy interests of the United States.”

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the company has begun promoting their technology in a bid to slow the spread of the virus.

Their “Retail Epidemic Safety Protection Solution provides retailers with a long-term and effective solution that helps secure operations during the pandemic and subsequent recovery,” according to a press release published on the company’s website.

The comprehensive package consists of a ‘Customer Flow Control Solution,’ a ‘Temp Monitoring Solution’ and ‘Social Distancing Reminder,’ according to the company’s website. The company lists restaurants, pharmacies, shopping malls and even casinos — which are illegal in most of China — as potential application scenarios.

A report by Reuters found that Amazon was found to have purchased Dahua’s thermal imaging cameras to scan their workers in the US.

According to a press release for the company’s live webinar titled ‘how can thermal cameras help prevent the spread of COVID-19,’ the company has supplied their thermal scanning technology to health authorities in Malaysia and Spain, transport hubs in Lebanon, Turkey and South Korea, as well as in a factory in Vietnam. The webinar was hosted with Omida, a company with headquarters in London.

According to a blog post by Tony Porter, the UK’s Surveillance Camera Commissioner, dated April 21, 2020: “In more authoritarian nations than ours facial recognition is tracking people who should be at home and thermal imaging cameras on public transport are assessing individuals’ temperatures to identify those who might have the virus so the authorities can intervene.”

However, this distinction is rapidly diminishing as private companies and health authorities in democratic and undemocratic states alike continue to acquire thermal imaging and facial recognition technologies from domestic and international manufacturers.

SenseTime

Notable Products:

  • ‘Smart AI Epidemic Prevention Solution’
  • Thermal Screening Technology
  • Facial Recognition Technology

SenseTime is a Chinese company with offices in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, and Chengdu. According to a 2017 Forbes article, it was once the most valuable AI startup in the world, with a valuation in excess of $4 billion.

According to an article in the New York Times, SenseTime is one of the many companies involved in China’s “rapidly expanding networks of surveillance cameras, [that] looks exclusively for Uighurs based on their appearance and keeps records of their comings and goings for search and review.”

Buzzfeed recently discovered that the company was also directly benefiting from US investments: “Millions of dollars from US university endowments, foundations, and retirement plans have helped fund two billion-dollar Chinese facial recognition startups: SenseTime and Megvii.”

The company, which also appears on the ‘Entity List,’ has recently unveiled a host of new technologies aimed at slowing the spread of the virus in China and abroad.

According to a press release on their website, the company’s ‘Smart AI Epidemic Prevention Solution’ has been deployed in schools, community centers and public transport hubs in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

The technology can reportedly “detect a fever within an accuracy of 0.3°C because it integrates sophisticated AI algorithms with infrared thermal technology. It can identify any individual who is not wearing a face mask, with a success rate over 99%, before notifying the personnel on duty.”

The company, which lists Mercedes/Daimler AG as one of its partners, has also been active in Wuhan, installing thermal imaging cameras at a steel and iron manufacturer.

In a press release dated May 7, 2020, the company boasts of its ‘SenseMeteor Smart Commute System,’ which introduced “QR code[s] and face scanning payment system at subway stations in Zhengzhou, Xi’an and Harbin, [to] help streamline ticket gate operations.”

The release continues to describe how this technology “crucially minimizes potential virus transmission for commuters during a time of heightened public health concerns.”

A report by Human Rights Watch cited QR codes as one of the ways authorities had monitored citizens of Xinjiang.

The technology has also been deployed in Russia to track citizens’ movement during the pandemic.

Megvii

Notable Products:

  • Thermal Screening Technology

Megvii is a Chinese company with headquarters in Beijing that specialises in image recognition and deep-learning software.

Goldman Sachs had been involved in the company’s planned initial public offering. However, according to CNBC, the investment bank later revised its position after Megvii were placed on the US ‘Entity List’ due to their alleged involvement in Xinjiang.

The company is best known for its Face++ facial recognition technology. According to a recent TechCrunch article, the company “have worked with the Chinese government on software used in mass surveillance systems.”

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the company has also started to actively market biometric surveillance technology in a bid to help slow the spread of the virus.

According to one press release on the company’s website, for example, the company’s “AI-enabled temperature screening solution has been deployed at 191 supermarkets across Beijing, including well-known chain operators Chaoshifa and Wumart.”

The release continues, “To date, Megvii has deployed temperature screening solutions in various locations including convenience stores and supermarkets, residential and commercial buildings, hospitals, subway stations, and campuses to facilitate the re-opening of businesses and schools.”

According to the company’s website, it has received funding from the Australian investment bank, Macquarie Group, as well as a wholly owned subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

iFlytek

Notable Products:

  • Contact Tracing Technology
  • Speech Recognition Technology

iFlytek is a Chinese artificial intelligence company that specialises in facial recognition and speech technology.

They were also added to the US ‘Entity List’ due to their alleged involvement in Xinjiang in October 2019.

On March 30, 2020, the company published a press release that announced their new partnership with the South Korean technology company, Hancom Group.

The partnership was established to create ‘Accufly.AI,’ an ” A.I. Outbound Calling System to assist the South Korean government at no cost and provide information to individuals who have been in close contact with or have had a confirmed coronavirus case.”

The technology, which utilises the company’s speech recognition technology, was part of a global mission to help fight against the pandemic.

“The battle against the Covid-19 epidemic requires collective wisdom and sharing of best practices from the international community,” said the company’s Chief Financial Officer, Mr. Dawei Duan.

“Given the challenges we all face, iFLYTEK is continuously looking at ways to provide technologies and support to partners around the world, including in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia,” he continued.

The company also attended this year’s CES event in Las Vegas where, according to the website, they “held a successful exhibition of products and applications in education, healthcare and public welfare sectors.”

As our previous research on the Security & Policing event in the UK and ISC West has demonstrated, this is certainly not the first time that Chinese companies with controversial pasts have been welcomed to British and American trade shows.

Meiya Pico

Notable Products:

  • Thermal Screening Technology

Xiamen Meiya Pico Information Ltd., otherwise known as Meiya Pico, is “the expert in digital forensics and cybersecurity in China,” according to the company’s website.

Established in 1999, it “provides solutions and services for law-enforcement and government organizations all over the world” and has over 1,800 staff.

As per their About Us page, digital forensics relates to “the practice of identifying, extracting and considering evidence from digital media such as computer hard drives, mobile phone, and medium storage card.”

In response to be adding at the ‘Entity List,’ the company wrote: “overseas sales revenue is small, mainly covers the countries along the “Belt & Road” and neighboring countries. The inclusion of the entity list will not have real impact on the company’s daily operations.”

It also stressed that, “all operation and services comply with the laws and regulations of relevant countries and regions.”

On March 3, 2020, the company released a new product that appears to be a thermal imaging device. The notice says that it is intended for “customers who needs to verify the fever visitors for health considerations.”

Another recently released product is their ‘5G Intelligent Security Robot’ which, according to the company’s website, has the following functionalities: “body temperature scanning, temperature alarm, mask wearing identification, coronavirus prevention and publicity control.”

Other new products include a ‘Smart Thermal Imaging Device,’ ‘Door-type Thermal Imaging Device,’ and a ‘Thermo Scanner.’

Uniview

Notable Products

  • Thermal Screening Technologies

According to the company’s website, Uniview is the world’s fourth largest video surveillance manufacturer in the world and is active in 145 countries.

The company, which was once owned by Bain Capital — a private equity firm founded by Mitt Romney — is now part-owned by Alibaba, the Chinese tech giant, and China Transinfo.

They are partners with the American company Axxon, as well as the German company Bosch. Unlike the previous companies, they do not appear on the US ‘Entity List’ despite appearing to have been active in Xinjiang.

In an interview in 2017, Ximen Yan, the company’s vice president, was asked what the company’s largest application in China was. He responded: “Probably an IP-based public security solution in Xinjiang Province.”

In a story in the Financial Times from November 2019, a local policing expert and party cadre from the public security bureau in Xinjiang also said that Uniview were active in the region.

The company lists projects with private businesses in Oman, Kenya, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE, as well as local authorities in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, as some of their ‘Success Stories.’

Now, the company is actively promoting a wide range of products related to Covid-19, including a ‘Face Recognition Access Control Terminal with Digital Detection Module’ and an ‘Integrated Wrist Temperature Measurement System.’

According to one tweet, they have supplied thermal screening technologies to over 600 universities in China.

CloudWalk

Notable Products

  • Thermal Screening Technology

In 2018, the Gunagzhou-based startup CloudWalk made the headlines after announcing that they had reached an agreement with Zimbabwean authorities to provide the country with facial recognition cameras.

According to an article published in Foreign Policy: the project “will enable Zimbabwe, a country with a bleak record on human rights, to replicate parts of the surveillance infrastructure that have made freedoms so limited in China. And by gaining access to a population with a racial mix far different from China’s, CloudWalk will be better able to train racial biases out of its facial recognition systems—a problem that has beleaguered facial recognition companies around the world and which could give China a vital edge.”

The company, which has reportedly received state funding from its inception, is, according to an article in the South China Morning Post, “helping to power the country’s massive surveillance network.”

CloudWalk was added to the Entity List on May 22, 2020, because of its alleged role “in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs”

In one example article from the company’s website, it displays its thermal screening solution for schools which appears to have been deployed as lockdown measures have eased in the country.

SensingTech & Quectel

Notable Products:

  • Thermal Screening Technology
  • Surveillance Drones

Quectel is a partner of Huawei and is, according to a press release published by Huawei, working with the company to develop 5G technologies. SensingTech, who develop facial recognition technology, also list the controversial Chinese company as a partner on their website.

According to a press release on Quectel’s website, the company has been “working with its customers to offer the latest innovations in IoT technologies to help contain the virus spreading, including delivery robots, reception robots, teleconsultation devices, drones, locators for quarantined people and much more.”

The company has sales representatives in the UK, US, Israel and across Africa, according to their website.

Across the world, there has been a rapid increase in the use of drone technology to monitor lockdown and social distancing measures. In the UK, local police authorities used drones and ANPR technology to track visitors to the Peak District, a national park. In the US, police in Westport, Connecticut, introduced a so-called ‘pandemic drone’ that also used thermal screening technology.

SensingTech have been deploying their thermal recognition technology across China, according to their website. On one page, they include videos of their thermal screening technology in use in Beijing’s Chaoyang Joy City, a large shopping mall.

Russia

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, Russia has deployed a variety of surveillance measures and repeatedly censored journalists covering the pandemic.

They have deployed a QR code system to track the movement of citizens in Moscow and have used facial recognition to monitor the city’s lockdown measures.

They are also home to one of the world’s largest surveillance companies, NTech Labs.

NTech Labs

Notable Products:

  • Facial Recognition Technology

NTech Labs are famous for their FindFace facial recognition technology. The FindFace software was initially released in Russia in 2014 as an app which allowed users to match anyone in a picture to their profile on the Russian equivalent of Facebook, VK.

According to an article in The Verge, “it was used to dox and harass sex workers, and NtechLab eventually shut it down in favor of enterprise and government work.”

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the company announced: “We at NtechLab are hard at work on adjusting and implementing our outbreak and quarantine control system to fight the pandemic.”

The web page explains that the company is currently offering its FindFace system to “detect and identify people in the streets in real time allowing for immediate response, while the AI analyzes social connections.”

The key features of the solution includes ‘Social Interactions Analysis,’ ‘Silhouette Tracking for Quarantine Zones,’ ‘Real-Time Violation Tracking,’ and ‘Age Detection.’

The company says that its technology has been used to help identify 200 people who had violated quarantine regulations in Moscow.

They also list over 100 clients and partners in 20 countries. On a map displaying these relationships, both the UK and US are identified.

Guided by the mantra, “FACIAL RECOGNITION KEEPS CITIES SAFE,” the company lists projects in Tyumen and Moscow as some of their successes.

Israel

Israel has rapidly expanded its surveillance infrastructure since the outbreak of COVID-19.

According to the BBC, “The Middle East’s cyber-superpower has made extensive use of surveillance technology to try [to] tackle Covid-19, as countries around the world grapple with the trade-off between privacy and monitoring infection.”

However, the expansion of surveillance technologies, which includes monitoring the location of citizens’ mobile phones, has not gone unchallenged. According to reports, the country’s Supreme Court “held in Ben Meir v. Prime Minister that executive authorization of the program without explicit statutory authority violated the nondelegation doctrine as it applies in Israel.”

The country is home to one of the most notorious cyber-intelligence groups in the world, the NSO Group. However, they are not alone in attempting to promote surveillance solutions in response to the virus.

Anyvision

Notable Products:

  • Facial Recognition Technology

AnyVision specialises in artificial intelligence and surveillance solutions for private companies and law enforcement agencies. It is headquartered in Israel and has offices in Singapore, Mexico, Brazil, the US and UK.

A blog post on their website declares that: “The ethical use of Artificial Intelligence sits at the heart of everything we do at AnyVision.”

However, an investigative report by NBC in 2019 alleged that the company had provided Israeli forces with technology that had been used as part of a covert surveillance programme targeting Palestinians in the West Bank.

“According to five sources familiar with the matter, AnyVision’s technology powers a secret military surveillance project throughout the West Bank.” NBC News

AnyVision disputed claims made in the article and the company’s CEO, Eylon Etshtein, initially threatened to sue NBC, allegedly telling reporters that AnyVision was the “most ethical company known to man.”

The company later revised this position and stated that: “As a private company we are not in a position to speak on behalf of any country, company or institution.”

However, in August 2019, the company confirmed that its technology was being used by the Israeli military at border crossing checkpoints.

The company had received funding from Microsoft. However, in March 2020, the company announced that it will no longer invest in third-party facial recognition companies.

According to an article in The Verge, “Microsoft says it will no longer invest in third-party facial recognition companies following a controversy around its funding of Israeli startup AnyVision, which critics and human rights activists say powered a surveillance program in the West Bank.”

In a press release dated April 27, 2020, the company announced: “We see limitless potential for how and where our AI-driven computer vision technology can be deployed to make the world a more seamless, intuitive and connected place” in response to the outbreak of Covid-19.

They also published a White Paper that outlined how their “visual intelligence products” would enhance safety around the world, including technology that would “allow people to access controlled spaces without the need to touch surfaces,” “protect people and property by identifying threats beyond human detection ability,” and “make it safer for businesses to provide services through customer devices.”

On a page advertising the company’s webinar titled ‘Enhancing Safety:
A Mandate for Computer Vision,” the company also explains that their technology could be used to create an “automated watchlist alerting” system and “intelligent quadrant control.” It can also reportedly “verify customer identity with liveness detection for secure remote services.”

Spain

It is not only companies in countries with sophisticated and highly intrusive surveillance infrastructures that are racing to develop technology in response to COVID-19.

As recent revelations about ClearView AI in America have shown, democracies also encourage the creation of highly invasive technology companies. In Spain, one company that has faced considerable controversy in the past is also attempting to join the fight against COVID-19.

Mollitiam Industries

Notable Products:

  • Social Media Monitoring Technology

Spain’s Mollitiam Industries describes itself as “a company that integrates experience and capabilities in the areas of development of solutions and software technology, cybersecurity and cyberdefense with global focus and activities.”

It offers authorities with the tools necessary to “capture relevant information from networks and other sources (public open sources, non-public or resulting from communications interception actions) to generate cyberintelligence as a basis for decision making.”

The company was recently included in Reporters Without Borders’ “20/2020 list of press freedom’s digital predators.”

“Those who have bought its surveillance tools include the Colombian armed forces, which have used them to illegally spy on supreme court judges, politicians, journalists and journalists’ sources” – RSF

In a recent article posted on the company’s website, they argue that the pandemic has made it “essential for the authorities to carry out a monitoring of digital identities in Social Networks in these moments of uncertainty.”

PHOENIX, the company’s social media intelligence platform, “allows the real-time analysis of massive volumes of information providing dashboards and critical alerts for the COVID-19 crisis management.”

Information acquired includes ‘Geogrpahic maps and location,’ the ‘Identification of trends,’ ‘Discovery of actors,’ and public ‘Sentiment analysis.’

The latest Freedom on the Net report published by Freedom House identified the rise of social media monitoring solutions as a key development in the decline of internet freedoms in 2019, writing that: “The booming commercial market for social media surveillance has lowered the cost of entry not only for the security services of dictatorships, but also for national and local law enforcement agencies in democracies, where it is being used with little oversight or accountability.”

Conclusion

As the public health crisis looks set to continue for the foreseeable future, it’s vital that government and health authorities around the world are transparent about the new technologies they are deploying in response to the virus. Without this, they will continue to avoid public scrutiny while putting their citizens’ rights at risk.

The companies described above are by no means unique in their attempts to capitalise on the pandemic. Rather, companies around the world are looking to capitalise on the public health crisis and sell their surveillance tech to democratic and undemocratic countries alike.

We will continue to monitor the rise of surveillance and invasive digital tracking measures implemented in response to the pandemic, as well as keep tabs on the controversial companies developing the technology.

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For more original security and privacy research, check out our COVID-19 Digital Rights Tracker, The Global Cost of Internet Shutdowns In 2019 Report, and our Home Office Security & Policing Investigation.