Tens of thousands of Beijing-made CCTV cameras line Britain’s streets, writes ROSS CLARK

What if Britain’s streets were blanketed in Russian-made CCTV cameras, many of which use sophisticated technology such as facial recognition software – and virtually all of which are internet-connected.

Imagine that their builders, able to access them remotely, received an order from the Kremlin to make all recorded data available to them, so that the FSB (the Russian secret police) as well as the military had the opportunity to spy on our streets, citizens, police stations, universities and hospitals.

Perhaps the cameras were also used to monitor comings and goings in ministries, where ministers make vital decisions regarding, for example, the supply of arms to Ukraine. The Russian state could also hunt down dissidents and other opponents of the war in Ukraine on our streets. Built-in microphones would allow conversations to be monitored. Fortunately, Russia doesn’t have a lot of electronics industry.

But China yes. And while we are not engaged in an armed conflict with China, it is deeply disturbing how surveillance equipment designed and manufactured in a country ruled by a dictatorship with an appalling human rights record has been allowed to integrate into our security networks.

Police forces and councils who have ordered Hikvision and Dahua cameras by the hundreds. Both companies have major shareholders with ties to the Chinese Communist Party

For anyone who sighed with relief in 2020 when Boris Johnson made his welcome but belated decision to ban Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from further involvement in building the UK’s 5G network, I’m afraid to say that the threat has not gone away.

Last month, Fraser Sampson, the Commissioner for Biometrics and CCTV Cameras, wrote to Minister Michael Gove warning him of the dominance of Chinese CCTV equipment in Britain.

He said he had “become increasingly concerned about the security risks presented by certain state-controlled surveillance systems covering our public spaces”. Two Chinese companies have become major players in our video surveillance market: Hikvision, which has a turnover of 7.5 billion pounds sterling and Dahua, whose revenues are 3 billion pounds sterling. Although both are private companies, both have major shareholders with ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

Yet security concerns do not appear to have been on the minds of government departments, police forces and councils who have ordered Hikvision and Dahua cameras by the hundreds.

Many have advanced features, though not always used: microphones, facial and gender recognition capability, and distinguishing between people of different racial groups.

Some cameras can analyze behavior – detecting, for example, if a fight might break out. Others can even judge moods, track by heat detection, and learn behavior patterns, to highlight any unusual activity.

Campaign group Big Brother Watch sent 4,500 Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to public bodies asking if they had Hikvision or Dahua cameras on their premises.

Of the 1,300 who responded, 800 confirmed they had done so, including almost three-quarters of councils, 60% of schools, half of NHS trusts and universities and almost a third of the forces of police.

A pedestrian walks past a Hikvision surveillance camera installed on a walkway.  The Department of Health is known to have Hikvision cameras, as it was on one that then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock was caught in an embrace in his office with his lover last summer.

A pedestrian walks past a Hikvision surveillance camera installed on a walkway. The Department of Health is known to have Hikvision cameras, as it was on one that then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock was caught in an embrace in his office with his lover last summer.

Only one government department, the Department for Work and Pensions, admitted to having had CCTV cameras made by the companies. We do know, however, that the Department of Health has Hikvision cameras, as it was on one that then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock was caught in an embrace in his office with her lover last summer.

(It should be emphasized that Hancock is not believed to have been caught off guard by a leak of data from a CCTV system, but from someone photographing a monitor. Nor is there any evidence that anyone at Hikvision, Dahua or any other Chinese authority has wrongly accessed footage from CCTV cameras installed in Britain.)

Either way, his successor, Sajid Javid, has since banned Hikvision cameras from the DoH. This could prove wise: security flaws have been detected in Chinese-made cameras that could be used to access images and data remotely and without the permission of their owners.

Last year, Italian public broadcaster Rai revealed that data collected from a Hikvision camera installed on its premises appeared to be sent to a server in China, apparently due to a “glitch”. Rai also revealed that 100 cameras at Rome’s main airport repeatedly attempted to connect to unknown computers.

Computer experts in the United States have already hacked into Hikvision cameras and posted their live feeds online, allowing anyone to see into people’s homes without the owners of the cameras knowing. Conor Healy of the American computer security website IPVM directed me to a website that has a map of several hundred Hikvision cameras in the US and UK.

Hover over the map and you see a live feed of parking lots, streets, shops, gardens and, in at least one case, what appears to be in someone’s home office.

“All cameras have vulnerabilities,” he says. “What makes some Chinese cameras different is that there are more security holes. Chinese law requires companies to report vulnerabilities to the government within two days. It is inevitable that the Chinese government will have the opportunity to use them.

Even setting aside security issues, do we want our governments to buy surveillance equipment from the companies that supply the cameras to suppress the freedoms of Chinese Uyghurs? Hikvision and Dahua cameras have been spotted in detention camps in Xinjiang province by BBC journalists, among others.

In his letter to Gove, Sampson said he had asked Hikvision if it accepted that human rights abuses were taking place and to clarify their involvement in the camps. “More than eight months later, they have yet to answer these questions,” he added.

The United States has already banned Hikvision and Dahua from selling surveillance equipment in the country and last July the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee demanded that the British government do the same.

Many hailed Boris' belated decision to ban Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from further involvement in building the UK's 5G network, but the threat has not gone away

Many hailed Boris’ belated decision to ban Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from further involvement in building the UK’s 5G network, but the threat has not gone away

It’s not just government agencies that use the cameras. Big Brother Watch reported that they were also rampant in the private sector, with 164,000 Hikvision cameras and 14,000 Dahua cameras in use in shops and other spaces used by the public. The naïveté with which we allowed Chinese-made security cameras to fit into Britain mirrors the naïveté that almost allowed Huawei access to our 5G network. At first, the government dismissed concerns over the use of Huawei, despite warnings from the United States (and our intelligence partners in Australia, Canada and New Zealand) that Chinese-made equipment was a potential security risk. But he changed his mind two years ago. All existing Huawei equipment must be retired by 2027. The government has also realized the potential security risk of allowing China’s state-owned nuclear group, CGN, to get involved in the project to build a new nuclear power station at Sizewell in Suffolk. He now plans to continue the project without Chinese involvement.

It would also be considered the height of folly for any government to order military hardware from China. Imagine, in any future conflict with China, demanding spare parts from the enemy!

Additionally, it is well known that military equipment is designed with “kill switches” that could prevent its use in the event that the country of manufacture goes to war with the purchaser.

French-made Exocet missiles sold to Argentina are thought to be fitted with such devices, although, as the Defense Select Committee revealed this month, the Mitterand government does not appear to have responded to the demands of the United Kingdom to share the technology needed to render the missiles inoperative, leading to deadly attacks on British ships during the Falklands War.

At a time when cyber warfare will become increasingly important, we must understand that security equipment used in civilian contexts carries a risk if ordered from countries whose governments are potentially hostile and they might consider the access to our CCTV systems as valuable in a war.

Yes, foreign investment in the UK is vital and our markets must be open to global trade. But we have to ask ourselves if allowing a fleet of potential spy machines into our public institutions is a price worth paying.

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