Surveillance of protests. Police can track protests in China by enabling ‘alarms’ on software from CCTV giant Hikvision
Chinese surveillance manufacturer Hikvision has allegedly helped Chinese officials track protests in the communist nation.
The Guardian said that it has learned that Hikvision has put in place tools to help in its software, so that police can track protest activities.
It comes after the UK government in November instructed government departments and locations to halt the deployment of any Chinese CCTV equipment from the likes of Hikvision and Dahua at sensitive locations.
That British ban came after the government’s own surveillance camera commissioner, Professor Fraser Sampson, in May this year issued a warning about Chinese-made CCTV cameras.
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.
Now the Guardian newspaper has reported that Chinese police can set up “alarms” for various protest activities using a software platform actually provided by Hikvision.
Descriptions of protest activity reportedly listed among the “alarms” include “gathering crowds to disrupt order in public places”, “unlawful assembly, procession, demonstration” and threats to “petition”.
These activities are reportedly listed alongside offences such as “gambling” or disruptive events such as “fire hazard” in technical documents available on Hikvision’s website. The Guardian reported that it was alerted to the existence of these features by surveillance research firm IPVM, or Internet Protocol Video Market.
Hikvision’s website also included alarms for “religion” and “Falun Gong” – a spiritual movement banned in China and categorised as a cult by the Chinese government – until IPVM contacted the company.
The “Falun Gong” and “religion” alarm were suddenly reportedly removed from the website with no explanation after IPVM contacted the company.
It comes after Chinese authorities last month faced mass protests across the nation, against the country’s zero-Covid policies.
Those protests did result in the Chinese government easing strict restrictions, but the Guardian reported that many protesters later received calls from police.
According to the Guardian, Hikvision has joined other CCTV players in developing and providing centralised platforms for police and other law enforcement to maintain, manage, analyse and respond to information collected through the many cameras set up across China.
Hikvision touts its cloud platform, called Infovision IoT, as a means to “provide intelligent public security decision-making and services” for police in order to alleviate “uneven allocation of resources, heavy workload, inability to share data”, according to the company’s website.
The Guardian noted that technical document available on the Hikvision website does not give many details about exactly how these alarms work but describes a long list of events or activities under “types” of alarms which include “infringement of property rights”, “stealing”, “trafficking of women and children” and pornography.
The document also reportedly describes “alarm methods” that include “discovery on duty”, “equipment alarm” and a call to the police.
But worryingly, at least nine alarm types are protest-related, according to a Guardian translation of the Hikvision technical guide. These include:
- “gathering crowds to attack state organs”;
- “gathering crowds to disrupt the order of the unit”;
- “gathering crowds to disrupt order in public places”;
- “gathering crowds to disrupt traffic order”;
- “gathering crowds to disrupt order on public transport”;
- “gathering crowds obstructing the normal running of vehicles”;
- “crowd looting”;
- “unlawful assembly, procession, demonstration”; and ….
- ….a “threat to petition”.
Police who are on duty, for example, will be able to report events or incidents as a “503” event – the code that corresponds with “gathering crowds to disrupt order in public places” – which could then trigger an alarm in the system for the rest of the police department, according to Charles Rollet, an IPVM researcher. That would also be the case for the “Falun Gong” alarm.
“It raises significant freedom of assembly and freedom of religion concerns,” Rollet was quoted by the Guardian as saying. “Technically those two rights are in the People’s Republic of China constitution, but in reality, the government cracks down very hard on those liberties. So I am concerned about how technology can facilitate the tracking of repressed groups.”
And another concern element is the vast amount of data on individual people the company enables its customers to track, the Guardian noted. Various personal attributes are listed as part of a “personnel dictionary” including political status, religion and ethnicity as well as physical descriptions such as whether someone has long or short hair or wears glasses, the colour of their coats, their age range and whether they smile.
Hikvision it should be remembered has previously come under fire for developing the capabilities to detect Uyghurs and other minorities.
Hikvision disputed all reports of enabling the Chinese government to target Uyghurs.
Hikvision declined to comment on this latest report.
Hikvision makes surveillance cameras (CCTV) and is widely used around the world by both businesses and consumers for their surveillance needs.
Indeed, according to Top10VPN, more than 1,000 cities have Hikvision cameras installed, with top markets being the US, UK, Brazil, Mexico and Vietnam.
Meanwhile civil liberties group Big Brother Watch in February this year published a report, which revealed that two thirds of UK public bodies that responded to, admitted using Chinese-made CCTV systems.
Hikvision has been on the United States Entity List since 2019, alongside other Chinese firms, prohibiting them from importing US technology.
In May the Biden administration said it was targetting Hikvision with potential additional sanctions for ‘enabling’ human rights abuses, as it allegedly supplied the Chinese government with surveillance cameras that facilitate the repression of 1 million Uyghurs who have been detained in camps in the north-western region of Xinjiang.
In November, the Federal Communications Commission introduced new rules that prohibited import and sale of future Hikvision communications equipment in the US.
Hikvision was also the firm whose CCTV camera reportedly captured Matt Hancock’s infamous embrace and kiss with an aide, that cost him his job as health secretary during the Covid pandemic.
That CCTV camera in Hancock’s former office was subsequently removed. The suspect who leaked the footage was never caught.
In July a cross-party group of MPs and Lords called for the government to ban the use of surveillance equipment by two Chinese firms in the UK over human rights concerns.
The group of 67 parliamentarians said they condemn the alleged “involvement in technology-enabled human rights abuses in China” by Chinese firms Hikvision and Dahua.