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MPs call for ban on Chinese surveillance camera technology

Nearly 70 MPs have called on the government to ban Chinese camera technology that is widely used by UK government agencies despite links to human rights abuses in China

A cross-party group of MPs has called on the government to ban the sale and operation of  CCTV surveillance cameras linked to human rights abuses in China.

Surveillance cameras supplied by Chinese manufacturers Hikvision and Dahua are widely used in state “re-education” camps, which have been accused of subjecting Uyghur Muslims to forced labour and torture.

The cameras have been banned in the US, but are widely used in the UK across government departments and companies.

Some 67 parliamentarians condemned Hikvision and Dahua’s involvement in enabling human rights abuses and called for a ban of the technology being sold or used in the UK.

A statement calling for the ban has been signed by former Conservative ministers, including Brexit ministers Steve Baker and David Davis MP, Damien Green MP and Lord Bethel.

Labour human rights advocates Baroness Sharmi Chakrabarti, and Baroness Helena Kennedy, Lib Dem leader Ed Davey, Green MP Caroline Lucas and the SNP’s Alyn Smith have also supported the ban.

Call for ban

“We call for a ban on the sale and operation of Hikvision and Dahua surveillance equipment in the UK and condemn their involvement in technology-enabled human rights abuses in China,” the MPs said in a statement.

They also called on the government to commission an independent national review of the scale, capabilities, ethics and human rights impact of modern CCTV in the UK.

David Davis MP said it was “shocking” how many UK companies were relying on technology from Chinese state-owned companies.

“This technology comes equipped with advanced surveillance capabilities, such as facial recognition, person tracking and gender identification,” he said. “These pose a significant threat to civil liberties in our countries.

“These companies, Hikvision and Dahua, are Chinese state-owned companies, raising urgent questions over whether they also pose a threat to national security.”

The MPs’ call to action follows research by campaign group Big Brother Watch that found the cameras have been widely deployed by government bodies including councils, secondary schools, NHS trusts, universities and police forces in the UK.

Freedom of information requests by sent out by Big Brother Watch found that 800 out of 1,300 public bodies that responded are using cameras from the two manufacturers.

Dozens of public bodies have artificial intelligence (AI)-equipped cameras supplied by the Chinese manufacturers that are capable of facial detection, gender recognition, identifying fights or whether someone is wearing a face mask. It is not clear whether these capabilities have been deployed in the UK.

The campaign group said the Chinese companies supply rebranded cameras that are sold under other names, including Honeywell and Toshima, so that the true number of Hikvision and Dahua cameras used in the UK public sector may be significantly higher.

Hikvision cameras have been found in some branches of Tesco, Starbucks, Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, Costa Coffee and McDonald’s. Cameras supplied by Dahua have been identified at the retailer Pets Corner.

The US Federal Communications Commission effectively banned Hikvision and Dahua from use by US government bodies in March 2021, citing security reasons, in a move that won backing from both houses of Congress.

In July 2021, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee urged the government to ban the operation of equipment provided by Hikvision and Dahua in the UK.

“The government should prohibit UK firms and public sector bodies from conducting business with, investing in, or entering into partnerships with such Chinese firms, to ensure that UK companies do not provide either blueprints or financing for further technology-enabled human rights abuse,” the committee wrote in a 40-page report.

Human rights abuses

Hikvision and Dahua have won contracts worth £990m to provide surveillance systems in China’s Xinjiang province, including re-education camps where an estimated one million Uyghurs are detained and subject to abuse, torture and forced sterilisation.

The two companies have previously been found to offer ethnicity profiling tools on their CCTV cameras used in Xinjiang.

The Uyghur muslims of the region are described by Amnesty International as “among the most heavily surveilled populations in the world”.

According to the human rights group, there have been reports of physical abuse, beatings, solitary confinement and electric shocks being used against Uyghurs in Xinjiang prison.

Accounts have been obtained by Amnesty International of inmates being placed into stress positions, the unlawful use of restraints, sleep deprivation, being hung from a wall, being subjected to extremely cold temperatures, and solitary confinement.

Security vulnerabilities

Security experts have identified a number of security vulnerabilities in Hikvision and Dahua products that could put privacy at risk.

Reports from Italy found a flaw in a Hikvision system that led to cameras attempting to connect to servers in China.

Further security holes were found this month when one of Hikvision’s remote viewing software tools was found to connect directly to services in China. Hikvision blamed the flaws on outdated software.

Duty to act

Fraser Sampson, the UK’s biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner, said emergency services and local authorities must be able to trust companies they work with on surveillance.

That means acknowledgement of, and assumption of responsibility for, actions, decisions, and their consequences, and a willingness to engage in public scrutiny,” he said. “Hikvision and Dahua have not come close to this expectation, in my view.

“We are now at a moment where most people would agree there is a duty to act.”

Shami Chakrabarti said UK taxpayers should not invest in Chinese technology that is used to facilitate abuse in China.

“We mustn’t support abuses over there or replicate a China-style surveillance state over here,” she said. “We need an urgent and fully independent review of surveillance in modern Britain.”

Jake Hurfurt, head of research and investigations at Big Brother Watch, said Chinese state-owned CCTV has no place watching Britain’s streets. “Hikvision and Dahua are closely linked to the genocide in Xinjiang and their low-cost, high-tech cameras are normalising intrusive surveillance in the UK,” he said.

“We urge the prime minister to follow the US example and urgently ban Hikvision and Dahua from operating in the UK.”

Update – 5 July 2022

Dahua Technology said in a statement to Computer Weekly that the company follows all applicable laws and rules in the UK and that it had “not been involved” in promoting human rights violations in any country.

The company said it welcomed a fair and transparent review of the role that video surveillance plays in the “safety and security” of the UK, but that calls for a ban were unjustified.

“We respectfully ask UK Parliament and our customers to recognise that our product and technology pose no threat to national security,” it said.

Computer Weekly has contacted Hikvision for comment.

Chinese cameras offer advanced surveillance capabilities

Hikvision

Hikvision is the biggest CCTV camera manufacture in the world, reporting revenues of £7.5bn in 2020.

The company’s AccuSense technology is claimed to offer:

  • Live facial recognition.
  • The ability to search past footage to identify a face.
  • Detecting when humans of vehicles enter a restricted area.
  • Sorting footage where a human or vehicle was detected.
  • Sort footage by event type, including motion, face, vehicle, people loitering, unattended baggage, removal of objects.
  • Mask detection.

The company’s DeepinView and DeepinMind technology is claimed to offer:

  • Facial recognition.
  • Gender and age recognition.
  • Ability to detect clothing, glasses, masks, hard hats, queues, vehicles.
  • Expression and emotion detection.

Dahua

Dahua is believed to be the second-largest CCT maker in the world, with annual revenues of just under £3bn.

Dahua’s Wiz line of algorithm-driven CCTV is claimed to offer:

  • Face detection and facial recognition.
  • Gender and age recognition.
  • Glasses and clothing analysis.
  • Facial hair detection.
  • Mask detection.
  • Bag and umbrella detection.
  • Emotion recognition: anger, clam, happiness, sadness, disgust, surprise, confusion, fear.
  • Detection of specified human targets from external data.

Source: Big Brother Watch report Who is watching you?

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