ROSS CLARK: Tens of thousands of Chinese cameras line British streets

China’s watching YOU: Beijing-made CCTV cameras can recognise faces, eavesdrop on conversation and judge a person’s mood. Worst of all? There are tens of thousands of them lining Britain’s streets, writes ROSS CLARK

  • The Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner warned Michael Gove about the dominance of Chinese CCTV equipment in Britain
  • Two Chinese firms are big players in our CCTV market: Hikvision and Dahua
  • Both have major shareholders with connections to the Chinese Communist Party
  • Police forces have ordered Hikvision and Dahua cameras by the hundreds
  • Italian state broadcaster Rai revealed that data collected from a Hikvision camera installed on its premises appeared to be being sent to a server in China 

What if UK streets were plastered with Russian-made CCTV cameras, many employing sophisticated technology such as facial-recognition software — and virtually all hooked up to the internet.

Imagine their manufacturers — able to access them remotely — had been ordered by the Kremlin to make all the data recorded available to it, with the result 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 being used to monitor the comings and goings at government departments, too, where ministers make vital decisions about, say, supplying weaponry to Ukraine. The Russian state could also be tracking dissidents and other opponents of the Ukraine war around our streets. In-built microphones would allow conversations to be monitored. Fortunately, Russia doesn’t have much of an electronics industry.

But China does. And while we are not engaged in armed conflict with China, it is deeply worrying how surveillance equipment designed and made in a country run by a dictatorship with an appalling human rights record has been allowed to embed itself in our security networks.

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

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

Last month, Fraser Sampson, the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, wrote to Cabinet Minister Michael Gove to warn him about the dominance of Chinese CCTV equipment in Britain.

He said he had ‘become increasingly concerned at the security risks presented by some state-controlled surveillance systems covering our public spaces’. Two Chinese firms have become huge players in our CCTV market: Hikvision, which has revenues of £7.5 billion and Dahua, whose revenues are £3 billion. While both are private companies, both have major shareholders with connections to the Chinese Communist Party.

Yet security concerns don’t seem to have been in the minds of the Government departments, police forces and councils who have ordered Hikvision and Dahua cameras by the hundreds.

Many have advanced features, even if they are not always used: microphones, the capacity for facial and gender recognition and distinguishing between people of different racial groups.

Some cameras can analyse behaviour — detecting, for example, if a fight might be breaking out. Others can even judge moods, track via heat-sensing and learn patterns of behaviour, so as to highlight any unusual activity.

The campaign group Big Brother Watch sent 4,500 freedom of information (FoI) requests to public bodies asking whether they had Hikvision or Dahua cameras employed on their premises.

Of the 1,300 which responded, 800 confirmed that they did, including nearly three-quarters of councils, 60 per cent of schools, half of NHS trusts and universities and nearly a third of police forces.

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

Just one Government ministry, the Department for Work and Pensions, admitted to having CCTV cameras made by the companies. We know, however, that the Department of Health has Hikvision cameras because it was on one that the then Health Secretary Matt Hancock was caught in an embrace in his office with his lover last summer.

(It ought to be stressed that Hancock is not believed to have been caught out by a data leak from a CCTV system but from someone photographing a monitor. Nor is there any evidence that anyone at Hikvision, Dahua or at any Chinese authority has wrongfully accessed images from CCTV cameras installed in Britain.)

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

Last year, the Italian state broadcaster Rai revealed that data collected from a Hikvision camera installed on its premises appeared to be being sent to a server in China — apparently due to a ‘glitch’. Rai also revealed that 100 cameras at Rome’s main airport had tried to connect with unknown computers multiple times.

Computer experts in the U.S. 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 being aware. Conor Healy of U.S. computer security website IPVM directed me to a website featuring a map of several hundred Hikvision cameras in the U.S. and UK.

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

‘All cameras have vulnerabilities,’ he says. ‘What makes some Chinese cameras different is that there are more security flaws. Chinese law requires that companies report vulnerabilities to the government within two days. It is inevitable that the Chinese government could have the opportunity to make use of them.’

Even laying aside the security issues, do we want our public authorities buying surveillance equipment from companies which 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 reporters 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 those questions,’ he added.

The U.S. has already banned Hikvision and Dahua from selling surveillance equipment in the country and last July the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee demanded that the UK Government do the same.

Many welcomed Boris’ belated decision to ban China’s telecoms giant Huawei from further participation in constructing the UK’s 5G network, but the threat has not gone away

It isn’t just public bodies, either, who are using the cameras. Big Brother Watch reported that they are rife in the private sector, too, with 164,000 Hikvision cameras and 14,000 Dahua cameras used in shops and other spaces used by the public. The naivety with which we have allowed Chinese-made security cameras to become embedded in Britain mirrors that which nearly allowed Huawei into our 5G network. At first the Government brushed aside concerns about using Huawei, in spite of warnings by the U.S. (and our intelligence partners in Australia, Canada and New Zealand) that Chinese-made equipment was a potential security risk. But it changed its mind two years ago. All existing Huawei equipment must be removed by 2027. The Government has realised, too, the potential security risk of allowing China’s state nuclear group, CGN, to become involved in the project to build a new nuclear power station at Sizewell in Suffolk. It is now looking at going ahead with the project without Chinese involvement.

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

Moreover, it is well known for military equipment to be engineered with ‘kill switches’ which could prevent it being used in the event of the country of manufacture going to war with the buyer.

French-made Exocet missiles sold to Argentina are believed to have such devices, although as the Defence Select Committee revealed this month, the Mitterand government does not appear to have responded to UK requests to share the technology required to render the missiles inoperable, leading to fatal attacks on British ships during the Falklands War.

In an era where cyber war will become increasingly important, we have to appreciate that security equipment used in civilian settings comes with a risk if ordered from countries with potentially hostile governments and they might see access to our CCTV systems as valuable in a war.

Yes, foreign investment in the UK is vital and our markets should be open to world trade. But we must ask whether permitting a fleet of potential spying machines into our public institutions is a price worth paying.

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