Councils to review CCTV contracts with Chinese firm amid human rights concerns

·3 min read
The Hangzhou headquarters of Chinese video surveillance firm Hikvision - Reuters
The Hangzhou headquarters of Chinese video surveillance firm Hikvision - Reuters

English councils are set to review contracts for CCTV equipment from Chinese firm Hikvision amid security and human rights concerns, The Telegraph can reveal.

Hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of contracts are expected to undergo either procurement reviews or security examinations by the end of the year.

It comes as pressure grows on councils to disassociate themselves from the technology company, which stands accused of helping to build the Chinese government's surveillance state.

The China Research Group of Conservative MPs has urged for more transparency and guidance from local councils, warning that continuing as they are would risk "blindly buying from companies profiting from human rights abuses".

In total, at least £1,000,000 worth of Hikvision equipment was purchased by councils across England between 2019 and 2021. The vast majority of buys were conducted through wholesale distributors rather than Hikvision itself, making accountability more difficult.

Dudley Metropolitan Council is among those set to consider alternative options for equipment at the end of the year with a full procurement review. The council currently has a contract worth around £450,000 for equipment supplied through a firm called DV Limited.

North Warwickshire Borough Council, which has purchased £240,000 of equipment through a contract with Synectics Security Limited, has said that although allegations regarding Hikvision's links to the Chinese Communist Party came to light after the contract was signed, it is considering taking specialist advice to ensure the technologies present no risk to the public.

Firm blacklisted by US Department of Commerce in 2019

Other councils have complained that the dominance of Hikvision in the CCTV market has made it difficult to divest as concerns over China have risen.

A spokesman for Colchester Borough Council, which has purchased around £143,000 worth of equipment through a supplier, said: "There are very few alternative manufacturers for suitably-specified CCTV equipment. Most computer, mobile phone and CCTV equipment is manufactured in China by corporations with close links to the Chinese government."

Hikvision was blacklisted by the US Department of Commerce in 2019 for being "implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China's campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention and high-technology surveillance against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups".

The company is still allowed to conduct business in Britain, with a base in Hayes, but is coming under increasing scrutiny from MPs.

Tom Tugendhadt, the chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, told The Telegraph that "there are credible reports that Hikvision is one of the architects of the Xinjiiang surveillance state", under which the apparent genocide of Uyghur Muslims has occured.

Campaigners also believe that "smart cities" technology, championed by Chinese firms and based on CCTV surveillance, could be prone to hacking by foreign adversaries, potentially leading to espionage against British citizens.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: "Organisations, including councils, must ensure they have a legal basis for processing data, are clear and transparent about how personal data will be handled, and ensure that the data is processed in a way which individuals would expect.

"Last year, the then minister for local government wrote to all council chief executives advising them of risks posed when purchasing new technologies, advising how they can better protect themselves."

Hikvision was approached for comment. The company has Hikvision has previously said it is "committed to respecting all UK laws and guidelines", adding: "As a manufacturer that does not sell directly to the end user, we do not oversee the operation of our products, but we do ensure our cameras are designed to protect public safety."

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