Cameras Linked to Chinese Government Stir Alarm in U.K. Parliament

Hikvision is supplying its cameras to U.K. government departments, universities, and hospitals, raising national security and human rights concerns.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

It is a Chinese state-owned company that is implicated in disturbing human rights violations. But that has not stopped Hikvision from gaining a major foothold in the United Kingdom. Through a network of corporate partners, the Hangzhou-based security firm has supplied its surveillance cameras for use on the British parliamentary estate, as well as to police, hospitals, schools, and universities throughout the country, according to sources and procurement records.

Hikvision, whose technology the U.S. government recently banned federal agencies from purchasing, is generating millions of dollars in annual revenue selling its technology to British companies and organizations. At the same time, it has been helping to establish an oppressive surveillance state in the Xinjiang region of China, where the Uighur ethnic minorities have been held in secret internment camps.

British politicians are raising concerns about the technology — and are calling for an embargo on further purchases of it — on the grounds that Hikvision is complicit in human rights abuses and also represents a national security risk, as it is feared that Chinese intelligence agencies could potentially tap into camera feeds in sensitive locations. Some of the company’s cameras record audio and are connected to the internet, meaning that they can be monitored from anywhere in the world.

In January, the cameras were scheduled to be installed inside London’s Portcullis House, according to Adm. Lord Alan West, a member of the U.K. Parliament’s second chamber, the House of Lords. Portcullis House is an office building in Westminster used by more than 200 members of Parliament and 400 of their staff to carry out their daily work, which routinely involves discussion of confidential national security, economic, and foreign policy issues.

West told The Intercept that someone who was “concerned that this was happening” tipped him off about a contract that would equip the building with Hikvision surveillance equipment. He said he subsequently complained about the matter to authorities within the parliamentary estate.

“It seems to me to be extremely worrying — it’s rather like being able to get a Mata Hari into each office,” he said, referring to the Dutch exotic dancer who was accused of spying for Germany during World War I. “Are we sure we are happy with Chinese CCTV in members of Parliament’s offices, listening to what they say to their constituents, listening to what ministers say, filming the documents on their desks?”

A Parliament spokesperson denied the existence of a contract involving Hikvision and said that there was no plan to “install any additional cameras at Portcullis House this year.”

A source familiar with security on parts of the parliamentary estate, which, in addition to Portcullis House, consists of the Palace of Westminster, the Norman Shaw buildings, and Big Ben, told The Intercept that Hikvision’s equipment had “absolutely” been used there in the past. The source said they could not confirm whether any Hikvision cameras were currently active, as there are hundreds of cameras fitted both in and around all parliamentary and government buildings in the area.

“It’s rather like being able to get a Mata Hari into each office.”

It has previously been estimated that, throughout the U.K., there are more than 1.2 million Hikvision cameras. Procurement records and government contracts reviewed by The Intercept show that the company — which was 40% owned by China’s authoritarian Communist Party regime, as of June 2018 — has supplied its surveillance systems to a wide range of organizations and companies across the country.

The cameras have been installed widely in London, in boroughs including Hackney, Kensington, Chelsea, and Hammersmith and Fulham. They have been purchased by local government authorities in Guildford, South Kesteven, Thurrock, Stockton, North Tyneside, Aberdeenshire, Falkirk, West Suffolk, and Kent.

In Wales last year, police began placing the Chinese cameras in 17 towns. In Northern Ireland, Hikvision’s surveillance equipment has been installed inside more than 300 buses. The cameras have been fitted inside hospitals in Hampshire, Lancashire, Kent, Northampton, Cornwall, Cumbria, and Yorkshire. They have been set up at schools in Surrey, Devon, Birmingham, and at a university in Plymouth. The cameras have also been deployed commercially: in the Southgate shopping center in Bath, the Gallions Reach shopping park in London, and at Tesco supermarkets and Burger King fast food restaurants.

Hikvision’s marketing materials say that its cameras can be used with facial recognition software and linked to a centralized database of photographs. The technology can distinguish between known faces and strangers, and trigger alerts when an unknown person enters a building or office, the company claims. It says its corporate mission is to “work together to enhance safety and advance sustainable development around the world.”

In China, Hikvision has been helping the government implement a nationwide surveillance network named Skynet. In recent years, the effort has aggressively focused on the Xinjiang region, where the Communist Party is implementing a crackdown on ethnic Uighurs, a Muslim minority, under the pretext of countering terrorism.

In Xinjiang, an estimated 1 million Uighurs — including children, pregnant women, the elderly, and disabled people — have been held in internment camps. Within these secretive facilities, Uighurs are forced to undergo a “re-education” process that includes mandatory recitals of Communist Party political songs and speeches. Those who resist are said to face punishments, such as beatings and solitary confinement.

According to Human Rights Watch, Chinese authorities are “committing human rights abuses in Xinjiang on a scale unseen in the country in decades.” The group said in a 2018 report that one of the most disturbing aspects of the repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang involves mass surveillance systems.

“Xinjiang authorities conduct compulsory mass collection of biometric data, such as voice samples and DNA, and use artificial intelligence and big data to identify, profile, and track everyone in Xinjiang,” the report said. “The authorities have envisioned these systems as a series of ‘filters,’ picking out people with certain behavior or characteristics that they believe indicate a threat to the Communist Party’s rule.”

Since at least 2010, Hikvision has been helping to establish a massive network of cameras in Xinjiang that police are using to spy on ethnic minorities. In 2013, Hikvision’s public security manager, Qian Hao, boasted that the company’s technology had enabled security forces to track and profile people. “We can help preserve stability by seeing which family someone comes from, then persuading their relatives to stop them from harmful behavior, like with Falun Gong,” a banned spiritual group, Qian said.

“We must be vigilant of any risk that Hikvision or any company may pose to U.K. national security.”

As China has ramped up its crackdown in Xinjiang, Hikvision has reaped the financial rewards.

The company is reported to have have a stake in more than $1 billion in business in the region, including five contracts in 2017 alone that were worth about $277 million. Among those contracts were deals to provide surveillance systems to state agencies for use in the internment camps, as well as on Xinjiang’s streets and inside its mosques, schools, and offices.

Hikvision declined to comment for this story. The company has in the past tried to downplay its connection to the Chinese regime, portraying itself as an independent corporation. However, the company’s own financial records disclose that its controlling shareholder is a Chinese government-owned entity called the China Electronics Technology HIK Group.

In September 2018, Chinese government official Weng Jieming declared that Communist Party leadership “is integrated into the corporate governance structure” at Hikvision, according to a government press release translated by IPVM, a video surveillance trade publication. Weng praised the company, saying that it had “resolutely implemented the spirit of the important instructions” from the country’s president, Xi Jinping.

In the U.K., Hikvision does not supply its cameras directly to its customers; instead, it sells the equipment through a network of wholesalers and subcontractors. The company’s latest U.K. accounts, from 2017, show a gross annual profit of $2.62 million and a turnover of $6.55 million. Its total global sales revenue for the same year totaled $6.65 billion, according to its promotional materials.

Hikvision has three offices across the U.K. and last year announced a plan to launch a new research and development hub within its British headquarters, near London’s Heathrow airport. The research and development division is headed by Pu Shiliang, who is based in China, where he has also reportedly worked for the government’s Ministry of Public Security, a feared agency known for targeting activists and political opponents.

The U.K. is an attractive prospect for any company working in the security industry. It is one of the most surveilled countries in the world, with up to an estimated 6 million cameras, one for every 11 people, throughout its towns and cities. Hikvision has managed to tap into the lucrative British market by undercutting its European competitors by a substantial margin. According to government procurement documents, a basic Hikvision surveillance system could be purchased for £1,000 ($1,310). In contrast, the cost was £3,000 ($3,930) for a system of similar specification made by Germany’s Bosch.

The British government has expressed concerns about the Chinese government’s involvement in the country’s critical infrastructure. In December, defense secretary Gavin Williamson said he would be looking “very closely” at the role of Chinese firm Huawei in upgrading the U.K.’s mobile networks from 4G to 5G. “We’ve got to recognize the fact … that the Chinese state does sometimes act in a malign way,” he said. However, Hikvision’s growing presence in the U.K. has not attracted the same level of scrutiny.

In the U.S., Hikvision has not had such an easy ride. In August of last year, an amendment was added to the National Defense Authorization Act that banned the U.S. military and government from purchasing Hikvision technology. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., who authored the amendment, stated that the Chinese government was trying to “target the United States” by expanding the role of Chinese companies in the U.S. domestic communications and public safety sectors. “Video surveillance and security equipment sold by Chinese companies exposes the U.S. government to significant vulnerabilities,” she said, “and my amendment will ensure that China cannot create a video surveillance network within federal agencies.” The ban was eventually signed into U.S. law.

Karen Lee, a member of Parliament for the U.K.’s Labour Party, told The Intercept that she was urging the British government to consider boycotting Hikvision products, especially for use in publicly owned buildings. “At a time when digital interference in foreign political processes is increasingly being used to destabilize other countries, we must be vigilant of any risk that Hikvision or any company may pose to U.K. national security,” Lee said.

More evidence is needed to prove that Hikvision is implicated in Chinese government espionage, Lee added. “Regardless, it is unacceptable that a company which has been instrumental in human rights abuses is providing equipment to publicly owned U.K. agencies,” she said. “Divestment has a proud history at the center of civil rights campaigns, from apartheid South Africa to the American civil rights movement. The U.K. must send a clear message that we will do no business with any company that facilitates mass human rights abuse and ethnic repression.”

Join The Conversation