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UK police still relying heavily on Chinese surveillance camera technology

The majority of forces reported using Chinese-made surveillance technology including for ANPR, CCTV and body-worn cameras.

By Ryan Morrison

British police forces are still relying heavily on Chinese-made CCTV camera technology despite security and ethical concerns about the companies that produce them, says the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner (OBSCC). A survey of police forces and other bodies released this month reveals at least 24 are using internal camera systems from vendors such as Hikvision that have been flagged as potentially problematic.

Commissioner Fraser Sampson wrote to the chief officers of all 43 geographical police forces in England and Wales, as the Ministry of Defence, British Transport Police, the National Crime Agency, and the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, to get a picture of their camera use. Of those, 39 forces and public bodies responded. The survey found that 18 used external cameras from questionable sources and 11 used automatic number plate recognition systems (ANPR) that were subject to concerns.

When the same survey was carried out in 2017 and 2019 the response rate was 100 per cent. This time it was 91 per cent, with no response coming from Greater Manchester Police, Merseyside Police or the National Crime Agency (NCA). Sampson’s survey asked a broad selection of questions about the use of surveillance technology including ANPR, CCTV, body-worn video, drones, facial recognition, helicopter-borne cameras, and other relevant systems within the scope of the OBSCC.

For every type of technology, apart from the helicopter-borne cameras and facial recognition, at least one of the police forces was using devices manufactured or supplied by a foreign company that has had a security or ethical alert issued against them, the report found, with respondents saying they need further guidance on what to do with existing technology.

In November 2022 Oliver Dowden declared that cameras made by Hikvision and other similar Chinese-owned companies can no longer be installed in or on government buildings. He called them a “current and future possible security risk”. Hikvision is partly owned by the Chinese government and is the largest CCTV provider in the world.

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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.

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Despite this, Hikvision’s cameras can be found in schools, police stations and even secret laboratories in the UK, supplying up to 60% of UK public bodies with CCTV. The government banned the future installation of the cameras, calls for removal from core computer networks and to “remove them altogether where possible”.

The problem, according to Sampson, is that further clarification of their use when already installed is needed from the government. He wrote in the report: “A number of respondents stated that there was a need for further guidance to be issued around the use of existing technology where there are security and/or ethical concerns around its source, although they did not make any suggestions as to who should issue it.”

He added: “In light of the Rt Hon Oliver Dowden’s Written Ministerial Statement in November 2022 on Chinese-made surveillance cameras on Government buildings, this would seem very sensible, and whether that sits with the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the College of Policing, the Information Commissioner’s Office and/or others is a discussion that urgently needs to take place.”

A government spokesperson told Tech Monitor the security of public institutions and systems is “of vital importance” particularly police forces and bodies employed to keep us safe, suggesting there is a “range of measures in place to ensure the integrity” of arrangements around technology.

“The National Cyber Security Centre has produced new guidance to help the police, and other organisations, assess and gain confidence in their supply chain cybersecurity,” the spokesperson said. “We are committed to promoting the ethical development and deployment of technology in the UK and overseas. We are aware of a number of Chinese technology companies linked to violations taking place in Xinjiang and are monitoring the situation closely.”

The Home Office said it doesn’t comment on security arrangements but explained there were measures to help ensure no UK organisations are complicit in violating sanctions through supply chains placed on Chinese officials and companies.

The report also found that the full capabilities of some of the surveillance technology employed by police forces isn’t fully understood – particularly after installing a software update – which, says Sampson “reinforces the need for thorough due diligence of all aspects of the equipment as an early part of the procurement process.”

This includes more penetration testing when considering the cybersecurity implications of equipment. There was no evidence from the survey that forces were using the national decision-making model during the procurement process and not all respondents had complete data protection impact assessments for the technology they were deploying.

“It is of interest that five respondents highlighted that their non-UK CCTV technology is standalone, and not connected to a network, which may be an attempt to demonstrate a reduced risk in their use,” Sampson wrote. “But this poses a question about how such technology is maintained, what system testing is undertaken, and whether and how they carry out software updates. If no refresh is done, then that raises its own risk.”

Sampson warns that data protection and procurement processes would need to be tightened up, particularly if they want to ensure trust and confidence in their ethical use of surveillance technology in public places. “Closure of the Office of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner in the event that Parliament passes the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill leaves questions around the future of oversight and regulation of public-space surveillance,” he said.

There are concerns that the closure of this office, and changes to data protection rules around surveillance technology could leave a “wild west” for CCTV camera and biometrics use if the government continues with the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill as it is currently written.

“The responses from this survey underline the fact that the more the police can do with public space surveillance, the more important it will be to show what they are not doing, to ensure trust and confidence. This will require trusted partnerships, with trusted partners working in a transparent and accountable way,” said Sampson.

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