MPs have called on the government to ban sale and operation of widely-used CCTV brands linked to human rights abuses in China.
A cross-party group of nearly 70 parliamentarians, including Tory ministers David Davis and Steve Baker, have condemned Hikvision and Dahua’s “involvement in technology-enabled human rights abuses in China”, calling for a ban on the tech being sold or used in the UK.
The group have also called on “an independent national review of the scale, capabilities, ethics and rights impact of modern CCTV in the UK”.
The statement, co-ordinated by privacy and civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, is also backed by rights groups including Rene Cassin, Stop Uyghur Genocide, Free Tibet and Hong Kong Watch.
Partly Chinese state-owned CCTV manufacturers Hikvision and Dahua are now banned from trading in the US, owing to security concerns and evidence of their widespread use in so-called “re-education” camps in Xinjiang where an estimated 1 million Uyghurs are detained and subjected to abuse, torture and forced sterilisation.
The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee called on the UK to follow suit with a ban of Chinese surveillance companies in November last year.
However, the government have been reluctant to act and new research shows that UK public bodies are awarding significant contracts to procure the controversial Chinese-made technology.
The MPs’ statement follows a six-month investigation involving thousands of Freedom of Information requests by Big Brother Watch, which found that the majority of public bodies use CCTV cameras made by Hikvision or Dahua, including 73 per cent of councils across the UK, 57 per cent of secondary schools in England, 6 out of 10 NHS Trusts, as well as UK universities and police forces.
A Hikvision spokesperson told City A.M.: “There is no backdoor. Technological or otherwise. Hikvision cameras are compliant with the applicable rules and regulations of the countries we operate in and are subject to strict security requirements.
“Vulnerabilities are a common and accepted occurrence of coding, and technology more broadly. Hikvision takes cybersecurity very seriously and follows the responsible disclosure process for vulnerability management – since the company’s founding in 2001 Hikvision has averaged fewer than one vulnerability per year.”
A number of government departments, including the Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), have Hikvision cameras visibly in use on the front of their buildings according to Big Brother Watch, although many departments refused to respond to their FOI requests about use of the technology.
The apparent presence of Hikvision cameras at the entrance of government buildings has raised accusations of hypocrisy, given the Cabinet Office’s warnings that UK companies “should consider the ethical implications of engaging with China on emerging technologies.”
The official guidance to tech firms on Chinese investment states, “ Our concerns include China’s use of facial recognition and predictive computer algorithms for mass surveillance, profiling and repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and elsewhere (…) to expand social control and limit individual freedoms” – activities widely attributed to Hikvision – and that trading with such companies involved in human rights violations “[poses] a significant risk to your business’s reputation”.
A Cabinet Office FOI response stated that “MOD [Ministry of Defence] guidance is not to use / install Hikvision equipment”. However, in a response to a parliamentary question by David Davis MP on 10th February 2022, Defence Minister Jeremy Quin stated “The Ministry of Defence has not issued guidance to other Government Departments about the use of these [Hikvision] surveillance cameras.”
However, Big Brother Watch’s research has found that dozens of public bodies have the AI-equipped cameras capable of facial detection, gender recognition and behavioural analysis and offer advanced features such as identifying fights or if someone is wearing a face mask.
Hikvision and Dahua have previously been found to offer ethnicity profiling tools on their CCTV cameras in Xinjiang and both companies have signed several contracts to provide surveillance equipment for cities and concentration camps in the region.
Cybersecurity experts have also identified a number of vulnerabilities in Hikvision and Dahua products over recent years that could endanger privacy. Reports from Italy found that a “flaw” in a Hikvision system led to cameras attempting to connect to servers in China.
This month, further security holes were found in Hikvision products as one of the company’s main remote viewing software tools was found to connect directly to servers in China. Like with many other cybersecurity vulnerabilities, Hikvision blamed the flaws on outdated software.
Jake Hurfurt, Head of Research and Investigations at Big Brother Watch, said: “It is horrifying that companies that provide the technological infrastructure for Beijing’s crimes against humanity provide cameras to 61 per cent of public bodies in the UK.
“The widespread use of Hikvision and Dahua CCTV in the UK is creating a dystopian surveillance state that poses serious rights and security risks to the British public, whilst indirectly supporting China’s persecution of ethnic minorities. We urge the Prime Minister to follow the US example and urgently ban Hikvision and Dahua from operating in the UK”.
Commenting on the statement, David Davis MP said:“I have long campaigned against the worrying creep of the surveillance state. Big Brother Watch’s latest findings show the shocking extent UK companies are relying on Chinese technology as part of their CCTV networks.
“This technology comes equipped with advance surveillance capabilities such as facial recognition, person tracking and gender identification. These pose a significant threat to civil liberties in our country.
“But in addition to the privacy concerns, these companies, Hikvision and Dahua, are Chinese state-owned companies, raising urgent questions over whether they also pose a threat to national security.
“The US has already blacklisted the companies. We need to be in step with our international partners, and should also look to ban invasive and oppressive technology from these firms.”