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July 4, 2022updated 05 Jul 2022 10:26am

MPs call for UK ban on Chinese surveillance cameras used by 73% of local councils

Politicians' ban demand follows report alleging links to China's oppression of Uyghurs.

By Claudia Glover

A cross-party group of 67 UK politicians has urged the government to ban the use of surveillance cameras from Chinese vendors Hikvision and Dahua. Campaigners have linked the two companies to human rights abuses in China, while experts told Tech Monitor that their use poses a risk that footage from the UK could be intercepted by the Chinese government.

Privacy campaigners have welcomed the call but argue that the use of all surveillance technology should be urgently reviewed.

A Hikvision camera in China. Photo by Wang Gang/VCG via Getty Images

The group calling for a ban on Hikvision and Dahua includes Lid Dem leader Sir Ed Davey, four former Conservative ministers, Labour human rights figures, and Green MP Caroline Lucas.

“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 group said in a statement.

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

According to a recent study by privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, which coordinated the MPs’ statement, Hikvision and Dahua’s equipment is widespread in the UK. It is used by 73% of local authorities, 35% police forces, and 63% of schools, it found. Dahua equipment was discovered at the Home Office’s Marsham Street headquarters last year, before being hastily removed.

Big Brother Watch’s report alleged that Hikvision and Dahua have participated in China’s oppression of the Uygher community in Xinjiang autonomous region. “Hikvision and Dahua have been accused of providing equipment to be used both for the general surveillance of the people of Xinjiang and to guard government-run concentration camps in the region,” it said, citing a report from the Daily Mail.

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“Mass surveillance in any situation is an unjustifiable encroachment on individual rights but it is even more concerning when the technology behind Big Brother is actively implicated in the brutal persecution of ethnic minorities – a crime against humanity,” Big Brother Watch said.

It also noted the two companies’ close links to the Chinese Communist Party. “Entities ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have significant shareholdings in both companies,” the report said.

Hikvision refutes these allegations. “CCTV has always played a critical role in the UK in the fight against crime and terrorism,” a spokesperson for the company said in a statement. “Hikvision is proud of the role we play in that.”

“The UK also has fringe groups who would like to see a massive reduction of CCTV in the UK who are willing to throw allegations around about CCTV, and who would lie to demonise Hikvision.

“Hikvision has always worked with government bodies to provide solutions to the UK’s CCTV requirements.”

Are Hikvision and Dahua a threat to the UK?

The use of Hikvision’s equipment poses a real threat to Western citizens’ privacy, says Greg Austin, senior fellow at International Institute for Strategic Studies, and author of the book Cyber Policy in China.

“They’re sucking up surveillance data on British citizens, Australian citizens, American citizens in all sorts of ways, which ultimately will be to the detriment of the governments and the citizens concerned,” he told Tech Monitor.

The Chinese government could well request access to this data, he added. “It’s a normal part of state espionage to liaise with and harvest data from your nationally branded corporations,” Austin added. “And it’s exactly the same for American corporations or British corporations.”

Mareike Ohlberg, who leads the Stockholm China Forum at public policy think tank The German Marshall Fund, agrees that it would be possible for the Chinese government to intercept video footage from Hikvision and Dahua cameras, as the companies have no legal way to deny requests for data.

“If the [People’s Republic of China] wants data or information, these companies will have no choice but to cooperate,” she said.

This could include tracking specific individuals across multiple cameras. “Please note that there is no concrete evidence that this is currently happening in the UK, but tracking individuals is a fairly standard capability for PRC authorities within China,” she added.

China’s government is already directing its surveillance infrastructure towards targets in the West, according to a report by the Washington Post last year. Analysis of Chinese government tenders and contracts revealed orders for software to track foreign targets on Western social media platforms.

Surveillance technology ‘erodes civil rights’

It is not just Chinese surveillance technology that requires greater scrutiny, however, experts and campaigners told Tech Monitor.

“We haven’t had a proper public conversation about the use of advanced surveillance technologies,” said Dr Daragh Murray, a senior lecturer at the University of Essex Human Rights Centre & School of Law.

Murray points to use of live facial recognition by UK police, which, he believes, could expand into more widespread applications. “This is exactly how the use of CCTV ‘crept’ into much more pervasive AI-enabled surveillance in Xinjiang,” he said.

CCTV and other surveillance technologies have failed as a public safety tool, said Albert Fox Cahn, founder of campaign group Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP). “But they can be a really powerful way to target political dissent and erode civil rights.”

“I wish that the Lords and MPs would go further and really question the UK’s broader investment in CCTV and particularly the increasingly unchecked role of facial recognition,” Fox Cahn added.

“There’s simply no form of mass surveillance that is compatible with liberal democracy, no matter where you manufacture it.”

Read more: The fight against facial recognition

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