British surveillance camera monitor asks British government to clarify Hikvision position

·4-min read

The independent monitor overseeing the British government’s use of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras has asked ministers to clarify their positions on buying surveillance cameras from China’s Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology.

Fraser Sampson, Britain’s commissioner for biometrics and surveillance cameras, said he has written to the Cabinet Office, as well as the minister for local governments in Britain, to understand whether they will continue to buy equipment from state-backed Hikvision.

The letters followed a report in The Telegraph this month that the Department of Health and Social Care had banned new purchases of Hikvision equipment because of “ethical concerns” that surfaced in a procurement review. The Health Department has not publicly confirmed the ban.

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“There are serious unanswered questions about Hikvision’s involvement in appalling human rights abuses in China,” Sampson, who serves in a monitoring role independent of the government, said in a statement.

“If companies won’t provide the information needed to do proper due diligence in relation to ethics and security, then they clearly should not be allowed to bid for contracts within government, or anywhere else in the public sector for that matter,” he added.

Hikvision was blacklisted by the US government in 2019 over Beijing’s treatment of Uygur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. The Hangzhou-based company generates about a quarter of its revenue overseas, with more than 1.3 million of its security cameras in use in Britain alone.

Sampson pulled out of an influence industry conference in Britain this month, saying at the time that Hikvision had yet to answer questions he first put to the camera maker last year on human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Hikvision was a prominent sponsor of the CCTV User Group’s Vision 2022 conference.

He also has said he has received “inconclusive correspondence” from the company so far and will not agree to any preconditions of “non-disclosure” regarding any answers he receives.

Hikvision’s meteoric rise coincides with surveillance boom

In a letter posted to Sampson’s website in March, Justin Hollis, Hikvision’s marketing director for the UK and Ireland, said the company would be happy to meet with Sampson’s office, but requested that any meeting be in private and commercially sensitive information be kept from the media and “anti-China platforms”.

Hikvision did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

In his letter to the Cabinet Office, Sampson noted that security cameras were increasingly being built with the capability to be switched on remotely, as well as pick up sound or read vehicle number plates.

“The more that surveillance camera systems can do, the more important it will be to reassure people about what they are not doing, whether that is in our streets, our sports grounds or our schools,” he said. “This is increasingly difficult to detect technically and requires transparency and due diligence by all concerned in public space surveillance activity.”

Hikvision surveillance cameras overlook a street in Beijing in December. Photo: Reuters
Hikvision surveillance cameras overlook a street in Beijing in December. Photo: Reuters

If the Health Department has issued a ban of new Hikvision purchases, it would be the first by a British government agency.

Representatives of the Health Department and the Cabinet Office would not a confirm a ban when responding to an inquiry by the Post last week.

“We take the security of our personnel, systems and establishments very seriously and have robust measures in place,” a Health Department representative said. “We do not comment on specific security arrangements or procedures.”

In response to an inquiry on Monday, a government spokesperson declined to discuss specific security arrangements, such as camera suppliers, saying the government has “a range of measures in place to scrutinise the integrity of our arrangements.’’

A Hikvision camera reportedly caught former health secretary Matt Hancock in an amorous embrace with an aide last year in violation of social distancing rules. Hancock resigned after the images were published in The Sun, a tabloid newspaper.

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