A group of cross-party MPs have called on the government to ban the sale and operation of CCTV 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 labor and torture.
The cameras have been banned in the US, but are widely used in the UK in government departments and businesses.
Some 67 parliamentarians have condemned Hikvision and Dahua’s involvement in human rights abuses and called for a ban on the sale or use of the technology in the UK.
Call for a 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-driven human rights abuses in China,” the MPs said. in a press release.
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.
MP David Davis said it was “shocking” how many UK companies relied on technology from Chinese state-owned companies.
“This technology is 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 enterprises, which raises urgent questions about whether they also pose a threat to national security.”
MPs’ call for action follows research by campaign group Big Brother Watch which 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 sent by Big Brother Watch revealed that 800 of the 1,300 public agencies that responded use cameras from both manufacturers.
Dozens of public agencies have artificial intelligence (AI)-equipped cameras provided by Chinese manufacturers that are able to detect faces, recognize gender, identify fights or if someone is wearing a face mask. It is not clear if these capabilities have been deployed in the UK.
The campaign group said Chinese companies supply name cameras sold under other names, including Honeywell and Toshima, so the actual number of Hikvision and Dahua cameras in use in the UK public sector could be significantly higher.
Hikvision cameras were 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 Pets Corner retailer.
US federal communications Commission effectively banned Hikvision and Dahua of use by US government agencies in March 2021, citing security reasons, in a move that won the support of both houses of Congress.
In July 2021, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee urged the government to ban the operation of equipment supplied by Hikvision and Dahua in the UK.
“The government should prohibit UK companies and public sector bodies from doing business, investing or partnering with these Chinese companies, to ensure that UK companies do not provide plans or funding for new technology-based human rights violations,” the committee wrote in a 40 page report.
Abuse of human rights
Hikvision and Dahua 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 subjected to abuse, torture and forced sterilization.
Both companies have already been found to offer ethnic profiling tools on their CCTV cameras used in Xinjiang.
Uyghur Muslims in the region are described by Amnesty International as “among the most monitored populations in the world”.
According to the human rights group, there have been reports of physical abuse, beatings, solitary confinement and electric shocks against Uyghurs in the Xinjiang prison.
Amnesty International has obtained testimonies of detainees being placed in stressful positions, illegal use of restraints, sleep deprivation, hanging from a wall, exposure to extremely cold temperatures and solitary confinement.
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 trying to connect to servers in China.
Further security flaws were discovered 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, from the UK Commissioner for Biometrics and CCTV Cameras, said emergency services and local authorities need to be able to trust the companies they work with when it comes to surveillance.
“It means acknowledgment and acceptance of responsibility for actions, decisions and their consequences, and a willingness to engage in public scrutiny,” he said. “Hikvision and Dahua didn’t come close to that expectation, in my opinion.
“We are now at a time when most people would agree there is a duty to act.”
Shami Chakrabarti said British taxpayers should not invest in Chinese technology used to facilitate abuses in China.
“We must not support abuses there or replicate a Chinese-style surveillance state 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 China’s state-owned CCTV has no place monitoring Britain’s streets. “Hikvision and Dahua have close ties to the genocide in Xinjiang and their low-cost, high-tech cameras normalize intrusive surveillance in the UK,” he said.
“We urge the Prime Minister to follow the US lead and urgently ban Hikvision and Dahua from operating in the UK.”
Update – July 5, 2022
Dahua Technology said in a statement to Computer Weekly that the company abides by all applicable UK laws and regulations and has “not been involved” in promoting human rights abuses in any country. .
The company said it welcomed a fair and transparent review of the role CCTV plays in the UK’s “safety and security”, but calls for a ban were misplaced.
“We respectfully ask the UK Parliament and our customers to recognize that our product and technology pose no threat to national security,” he said.
Computer Weekly has contacted Hikvision for comment.