British Police At Risk From Chinese Drones, CCTV Cameras

Police security crowd control © chrisdorney Shutterstock

Amid concern of Chinese spy balloons, UK’s Camera Commissioner warns British police about their use of Chinese drones, cameras

British police forces are “shot through with Chinese camera technology”, the UK camera commissioner warned on Wednesday.

The warning came in a survey of British police forces that was carried out in the second half of 2022, by the Office of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner.

It comes amid heightened concern about Chinese surveillance capabilities over the past few weeks after the shooting down of a Chinese ‘spy balloon’ over North America, and the downing of three other unidentified flying objects.

Image credit: Police Scotland

Police risk

The survey asked all 43 police force areas in England and Wales, as well as the British Transport Police, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, the Ministry of Defence, and the National Crime Agency, about their use and governance of public surveillance camera systems including on drones and helicopters, body-worn video, ANPR (automatic number plate recognition), and any other relevant systems.

Thirty-nine responses were received out of a possible total of 47. Key findings include that:

  • at least 18 respondents say that their external camera systems use equipment about which there have been security or ethical concerns (including Dahua, Hikvision, Honeywell and Huawei, and Nuuo);
  • at least 24 respondents say that their internal camera systems use equipment about which there have been security or ethical concerns (including Dahua, Hikvision, Honeywell and Huawei, and Nuuo);
  • at least 11 respondents say their ANPR systems use equipment about which there have been security or ethical concerns;
  • at least 2 respondents use cameras made by Hikvision in their body-worn video systems;
  • 23 of the 31 respondents who said they operate cameras on drones / unmanned aerial vehicles (variously with video, audio, and thermal imaging and/or night vision capability), said they were aware of security or ethical concerns about the manufacturer of their drones, Chinese company, DJI.

Shot through

“It is abundantly clear from this detailed analysis of the survey results that the police estate in the UK is shot through with Chinese surveillance cameras,” said Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner Fraser Sampson.

“It is also clear that the forces deploying this equipment are generally aware that there are security and ethical concerns about the companies that supply their kit,” said Sampson.

“There has been a lot in the news in recent days about how concerned we should be about Chinese spy balloons 60,000 feet up in the sky,” Sampson added. “I do not understand why we are not at least as concerned about the Chinese cameras 6 feet above our head in the street and elsewhere.”

“Clearly it is vital sometimes that the police must be able to use intrusive surveillance technology in public places,” said Sampson. “But if they want the public to trust them to do so, they must be able to persuade us, not only that they are working partners and providers that can be trusted, but also that they will use the technology available to them lawfully, responsibly and according to a set of clear agreed principles.”

“Parliament has already acted to curtail the use of equipment made by several Chinese manufacturers from some areas of public life where security is key,” said Sampson. “Myself and others have been saying for some time that we should, both for security and ethical reasons, really be asking ourselves whether it is ever appropriate for public bodies to use equipment made by companies with such serious questions hanging over them.”

China concerns

Concern about Chinese activities have been growing recently.

Last week the Australian government ordered the removal of Chinese surveillance cameras from sensitive government and military locations over national security concerns.

Australia followed the US and UK in carrying out this action.

Last November the British government instructed government departments and locations to halt the deployment of any Chinese CCTV equipment.

The British decision to ban the use of CCTV camera from the likes of Hikvision and Dahua, was down to concern the two firms have links to the Chinese government.

The UK surveillance camera commissioner, Professor Fraser Sampson, in May 2022 had issued a warning about Chinese-made CCTV cameras, commonly found on British streets.

King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership
King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership

Professor Fraser Sampson said at the time he was becoming increasingly concerned about the security risks posted by “state-controlled surveillance systems covering our public spaces.”

Indeed, such was his concern, that Professor Sampson warned public sector bodies and local authorities against buying CCTV equipment from Chinese firms including market leader Hikvision.