Security cameras made by Chinese company Hikvision can no longer be installed in or on government buildings after cabinet minister Oliver Dowden declared them “current and future possible security risks”. This came after calls for a nationwide ban by a group of MPs and peers, but doesn’t go far enough, according to the UK’s outgoing biometrics and surveillance cameras commissioner.

The UK is one of the most surveilled countries in the world with an estimated 6 million CCTV cameras across the nation. London has become the most surveilled city outside of China, and even has more cameras per person than Beijing.  Cameras can be seen in every public building, business and on every high street – it is very well known that a huge number are made by controversial Chinese surveillance companies Hikvision and Dahua.

Open-source data suggests that there are hundreds of thousands of internet-connected CCTV cameras made by these two companies in the UK, as well as a huge number of cameras that are not indexed online. Hikvision is the biggest CCTV manufacturer in the world, with 2020 revenues of almost £7.5 billion, while Dahua may be the second-largest CCTV maker in the world with annual revenues of just under £3 billion.

Hikvision is partly owned by the Chinese government and is the largest CCTV provider in the world, serving schools, public institutions and secret laboratories in the UK. It supplies up to 60% of UK public bodies with CCTV cameras according to a report by Big Brother Watch, which found that the cameras from Hikvision and Dahua, another partly Chinese government-owned manufacturer, were used by 73% of local authorities, 35% of police forces and 63% of schools in the UK.

There have been growing calls for a ban on their use, particularly in sensitive and high-security areas, in part due to Hikvision’s alleged role in aiding Chinese oppression in the Xinjiang province and Tibet. Big Brother Watch’s report alleged that Hikvision and Dahua have participated in China’s oppression of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang.

The new decision by the UK government includes a ban on the future installation of any security cameras made by companies subject to Chinese security laws and came after a review of the security risks linked to surveillance systems on the government estate

“The review has concluded that, in light of the threat to the UK and the increasing capability and connectivity of these systems, additional controls are required,” Dowden wrote in a statement to parliament.

Over a million of these cameras are thought to be on buildings across the UK, including on government and publicly owned property, watching every aspect of our lives.

Professor Fraser Sampson, the outgoing UK Biometrics and Surveillance Cameras Commissioner, told Tech Monitor banning the cameras from government buildings is “the easy bit”, and now the hard work begins. “We need a risk-based timeline to address all the issues, some of which can be done now but others take years,” Professor Sampson says. “We are no longer asking whether certain security companies can be trusted, we now accept they can’t, but we need to work out how to verify those we can trust.”

Action Required

It is recommended that an urgent action be undertaken to review CCTV providers, the cameras and systems installed and to consider replacing their existing cameras if they are either of the mentioned banned companies or to at least ensure the cameras are not on an accessible (even via hacking) network.

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