China’s Big Brother spy cameras are watching you

Published by The Mail on Sunday (19th July, 2020)

Visiting an Army base in the Dorset village of Bovington in 1923, the author Rudyard Kipling suggested the creation of a museum to tanks after seeing some of the abandoned and damaged machines from First World War battlefields.

Almost 100 years later, Bovington Camp is home to both a military garrison and the Tank Museum, which has become the world’s biggest collection of a lethal British invention that changed the shape of 20th Century conflict.

Yet fans of Kipling, writer of those famous lines that ‘East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’, might be surprised to see the brand name of the 54 cameras protecting the prized Challenger, Panzer and Tiger tanks.

For the security system is made by a Chinese technology giant that was last month identified by the United States Defense Department as being military-controlled.

The Pentagon’s revelation opened a fresh front in the fight to stop China gaining access to Western technology infrastructure. It came amid the furore that last week forced the British government to ban telecoms firms from using 5G kit made by Chinese giant Huawei.

Hikvision, a state-controlled firm, has become Britain’s biggest supplier of CCTV equipment, with cameras and facial-recognition systems dotted around the country, despite being blacklisted by Washington for links to barbaric human rights abuse.

They have been installed on streets in London, Bath, Salford and North Wales, and scores of schools, hospitals, buses, rail stations, air and sea ports. They have been placed in football clubs, hotels, pubs and leisure centres, and are even watching the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and yachts berthed in Cowes.

Yet there are fears that its systems – which suck up images of millions of British citizens daily – can be accessed remotely through ‘back doors’ by Chinese security agents to gather intelligence.

The firm, which is led by a senior Chinese Communist Party official, is also at the centre of Beijing’s drive to dominate emerging technologies of artificial intelligence in order to control its 1.3 billion citizens and promote its autocratic global vision.

‘The UK needs to have a healthy dose of scepticism over what these systems are being used for and whether the data can be siphoned back to China,’ said Steven Feldstein, a former State Department official in Washington.

‘As the basic starting point, there should be a stringent security audit to determine if there has already been leakage of data and if Hikvision systems are potentially vulnerable to China’s authorities,’ said Feldstein, author of a recent Carnegie think-tank report exposing global use of advanced technology to monitor citizens.

He was backed by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former chairman of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, who called on the National Cyber Security Centre to urgently investigate if China’s security agencies can access Hikvision devices. 

Sir Malcolm added that any companies linked to the repression of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang province should be blacklisted in Britain. ‘China is behaving disgracefully there and we should have nothing to do with firms involved,’ he said.

Although founded only in 2001, Hikvision has developed from a Chinese research institution into the world’s biggest supplier of video surveillance equipment. It grew fast with the help of bankrolling by state banks, admitting that its early success was built on ‘undercutting established rivals, particularly in the US and Europe’.

American buyers of its products included the police, military and even diplomats for their high-security embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, while government bodies and local authorities assisted its rapid growth after arriving in Britain.

Yet while Hikvision poses as a ‘transparent’ public company, the Communist Party in Beijing has a dominant shareholding through the Chinese Electronic Technology Company, a state-run body tasked with developing systems for both military and civilian use.

Hikvision’s well-connected chairman is Chen Zongnian, who two years ago became a member of the National People’s Congress, the country’s main legislative body.

Shiliang Pu, a senior vice-president who has overseen research and development, has also led work at a key laboratory run by the much-feared Ministry of Public Security, which oversees policing and cyber-security for the state.

Hikvision has developed face and gait recognition systems, as well as basic CCTV, often capable of internet connection. 

Since the pandemic erupted, it has pushed devices to track visitor numbers and detect fevers through thermal imaging to shops, care homes and hospitals. Buyers include the Balhousie Care Group, which last month announced that it was spending £175,000 to install Hikvision thermal imaging cameras into its 25 care homes across Scotland to reassure staff and residents by monitoring temperatures.

Yet such gear is also being used for more disturbing purposes –monitoring Muslim minorities as part of Beijing’s extreme surveillance in Xinjiang, where more than one million people have been incarcerated in horrific ‘re-education’ camps. 

Hikvision technology was mentioned in at least 27 state-issued tenders in Xinjiang over the past two years, including contracts to supply surveillance equipment to the police, military and courts.

One 2018 deal placed facial-recognition cameras at the entrance of 967 mosques. Another project won by Hikvision was for 30,000 cameras in Urumqi, the region’s capital city, along with drones, data centres and smart monitoring systems.

The firm has allegedly created controversial racial-profiling software that detects if people belong to an ethnic minority, while it has been linked by human rights groups to equipment that allows police to covertly access emails and track visitors to websites.

In Xinjiang, the Chinese authorities have used total camera surveillance alongside compulsory collection of biometric data such as voice samples and DNA to pick out people to send to camps, crush dissent and stifle free speech.

Nine British MPs last year raised concerns over sinister products also being used to develop ‘intrusive security apparatus’ in Tibet. ‘These are the same issues we have seen with Huawei,’ said Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael, who organised a cross-party letter of complaint to the Chinese embassy.

Carmichael believes Hikvision should be banned from Britain. ‘These highly intrusive technologies involve the harvesting of massive amounts of data and it is absolutely critical you can trust all the people involved with them. Hikvision equipment has been used for brutal repression. This is not a firm we can trust,’ he says.

Even beyond Tibet and Xinjiang, the firm is a key instrument in China’s dystopian drive to control all its citizens by embracing digital opportunities and developing new technologies while ruthlessly restricting behaviour and online activities. 

Facial-recognition systems are used to track big spenders in stores, open bank accounts, stop pupils daydreaming as well as for crime fighting, crowd control and catching drivers without licences.

Earlier this year, Hikvision predicted the development of cameras that use senses such as hearing, smell and vision alongside radar to extend their range. ‘The multi-dimensional perception trend will powerfully shape security systems,’ it said.

One study last year found that Chinese innovators, encouraged by the government and with far fewer obstacles to collecting data than in democracies, have been filing almost ten times as many facial-recognition patents as the US.

Eight of the ten cities with the most surveillance cameras in the world are in China, which plans to triple the numbers in use to more than 600 million by 2022. They are joined by London, reflecting how Britain has embraced CCTV more than other Western nations.

‘The West has been asleep and so taken a big risk over these Chinese companies,’ said Kai Strittmatter, a veteran German journalist who spent a decade in Beijing before writing We Have Been Harmonised, a book on China’s surveillance state.

He warns there are suspicions of ‘back doors’ in Hikvision devices allowing security agencies to access their data, like other Chinese technology firms. ‘It has not been proven, but you cannot exclude the idea since experts say they are very difficult to find and besides, there are often software updates.’ Beijing helped build the new African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – then all the body’s data was reportedly downloaded in the middle of every night for five years until the hacking was discovered.

‘When security devices are all connected to the internet, the potential for data to be fed to unauthorised sources is huge,’ said Silkie Carlo, director of the Big Brother Watch pressure group.

Hikvision, which also sells robots and devices such as jammers to ‘capture’ hostile drones, has sold security equipment to some of the most repressive regimes on the planet, including Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Last October, Washington placed Hikvision and 19 other Chinese technology firms on its ‘entities’ list for links to human-rights atrocities, which meant US firms were not permitted to sell them vital components. Huawei was similarly listed six months earlier.

A New York firm and its executives were charged later over allegations of importing Hikvision surveillance gear that was sold on as ‘American-made’, even ending up on navy ships and military bases. The Department of Justice claimed the systems had ‘known cybersecurity vulnerability’.

Yet Britain is so unconcerned that the Home Office even allowed Hikvision to attend its Security and Policing trade fair in Farnborough in March.

‘It is shocking the British Government permits the purchase of more than one million surveillance cameras made by a Chinese Communist Party-controlled company and installed across the country,’ said Alex Gladstein of the Human Rights Foundation.

Beijing newspapers admit their firms must mine global data to improve ‘deep learning’ recognition of different ethnicities. 

Xi Jinping, China’s hardline president, wants his country to become the global leader in developing artificial intelligence technologies by 2030, using big data to strengthen the state’s domination of citizens.

Using a process called machine learning, huge quantities of data are fed into computer systems so they learn to recognise patterns or traits. The more access they have to diverse data, the smarter the algorithms they can develop.

Some analysts have compared this battle to the space race between America and Russia in the 1960s – although Beijing has been ramping up spending in this area much faster than Washington has.

China sees this transformative technology as being used in everything from guiding weapons and assisting medical diagnosis through to ‘predictive policing’ – and hopes its systems, once perfected, can be sold to similar-minded autocracies.

Lianchao Han, a leading Chinese dissident, said Hikvision was selling cut-price products for spying on people and supporting dictatorships. ‘If we cannot stop this surveillance company, it will mean the end of the free world as we know it,’ he said.

Hikvision said that it took reports of human rights ‘very seriously’, engaged with both British and US governments to address any concerns and that its cybersecurity standards were compliant ‘with the most rigorous certifications’.

‘The most recent claims by the US government about links to the Chinese military are completely baseless and are the consequence of a global trade war with China,’ said a spokesman.

‘We will continue to work with all stakeholders in a transparent manner to resolve all of these matters.’

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