Iranian women bare their heads in protest against government controls. A senior official said algorithms can identify anyone who does not follow the dress code.
Last month, a young woman went to work at Sarzamineh Shadi, or Land of Happiness, an indoor amusement park east of the Iranian capital Tehran. After a photo of the woman without a hijab went viral on social media, the amusement park was shut down, according to multiple reports in Iranian media. The Tehran prosecutor’s office has reportedly launched an investigation, Wired wrote on the subject.
Shutting down a business to enforce Iran’s strict women’s dress laws is a familiar tactic for Shaparak Shajarizadeh. She stopped wearing the hijab in 2017 because she considered it a symbol of government repression, and recalls how restaurant owners, fearful of the authorities, pressured her to cover her head.
After Iranian lawmakers proposed last year that facial recognition be used to monitor the hijab law, the head of the Iranian government agency that enforces the morality law said in an interview in September that the technology would be used “to identify inappropriate and unusual movements,” including “non-compliance with hijab laws.” Individuals could be identified by checking their faces against a national identity database to levy fines and make arrests, he said in the interview.
Two weeks later, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman named Gina Mahsa Amini died after being detained by Iran’s morality police for not wearing her hijab tightly enough. Her death sparked historic protests against women’s dress codes that led to some 19,000 arrests and more than 500 deaths.
Catherine Grote, a human rights analyst at Freedom House, a US government-backed NGO, says she has noticed a shift in Iran in recent years, from relying on informants and physical patrols to forms of automated digital surveillance targeting critics.
Facial recognition has become a coveted tool for authoritarian regimes around the world as a way to suppress dissent, Grote says, though many lack the necessary technical infrastructure.
“Iran is a case where they have both the governmental will and the physical capabilities.”
Some of the facial recognition devices used in Iran today are the work of Chinese camera and artificial intelligence company Tiandy. Its dealings in Iran were included in a December 2021 report by IPVM, a company that monitors the surveillance and security industry.
Tiandy is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of security cameras, but its sales are mostly in China, the report’s author says, and the company appears to have seized the opportunity to expand into Iran.