Amazon turns to Chinese firm on U.S. blacklist to meet thermal camera needs

With thousands of employees showing up to work each day to meet surging demand, Reuters has learned that Amazon is buying cameras to check workers for fevers from a company the U.S. blacklisted: A Chinese firm that allegedly helped Beijing detain and surveil Muslim minorities in the region of Xinjiang.

These are the cameras.

Made by Zhejiang Dahua Technology, the blacklisted company, the cameras work by comparing a person's radiation to a separate infrared calibration device.

Evan Steiner sells surveillance equipment, including this camera, through his firm EnterActive Networks.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) EVAN STEINER, WHO SELLS SURVEILLANCE EQUIPMENT VIA HIS FIRM ENTERACTIVE NETWORKS LLC, SAYING:

"The system would determine that they are in the safe temperature zone and they would continue on. They don't have to slow down. They don't have to stop. They don't have to look at the camera. It's in this particular case, instantaneous."

And to make sure its looking for heat in the right place and not from a cup of coffee in hand, the camera uses face detection technology to track those walking by.

One source told Reuters that the Dahua shipped 1,500 cameras to Amazon this month in a deal valued close to $10 million. While another source said at least 500 of the cameras will be used at Amazon sites in the U.S.

Corporate purchases from blacklisted companies are legal.

Still, many view China as America’s chief economic and political rival and U.S. authorities have worried about the prospect of Beijing spying on U.S. citizens.

Amazon declined to confirm its purchase from Dahua, but said its hardware complied with national and state law and its temperature checks were to "support the health and safety" of its employees.

Dahua is one of the biggest surveillance manufacturers in the world but last year was placed on a blacklist along with other companies that limits its ability to buy components from U.S. suppliers for allegedly enabling human rights violations in China.

The United Nations estimated that more than one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have been put in camps in the Xinjiang region in a campaign by China to root out terrorism.

Dahua has said the decision by the U.S. lacked "any factual basis," while Beijing has denied any mistreatment of minorities in Xinjiang.

As more companies go back online, devices that check for fevers are in high demand. The U.S. Food and Drug administration has warned of shortages.

Steiner says Dahua's camera availability has been key to drawing corporate interest.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) EVAN STEINER, WHO SELLS SURVEILLANCE EQUIPMENT VIA HIS FIRM ENTERACTIVE NETWORKS LLC, SAYING:

"You're seeing a lot of companies doing everything that they possibly can preemptively to prepare for their workforce coming back and then reactively in the case of Wal-Mart or Amazon, where employees have thrown their hands up and really protested against not feeling safe being in the workplace. So for all the right reasons, companies have indicated a concern and an interest in this technology."

Steiner did not comment on any Dahua customers. A source told Reuters that Amazon isn't the only one: IBM placed an order for 100 units and Chrysler for 10.

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