February 10, 2022 - 7:30am

Chinese surveillance giants, including Hikvision and Dahua, with their pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap business models, are now the dominant CCTV manufacturers in the West and their AI-powered cameras are fuelling a new age of algorithmic surveillance.

There are hundreds of thousands of web-connected CCTV cameras all over the UK, often with increasingly advanced “smart” features coming as standard. Chinese state-owned manufacturer Hikvision, the world’s biggest, offers a smorgasbord of high-tech monitoring tools from live facial recognition to face mask and fight detection for rock bottom prices.

The ethical problems with the dominance of Chinese-state owned CCTV and its links to atrocities in Xinjiang are well documented. Hikvision provides the “primary camera technology” for the detention camps that hold one million Uyghurs while Dahua, another state own company, has created ethnicity identification algorithms that reportedly provided Uyghur alerts to the authorities. 

Although ethnicity-detecting cameras are not currently used or offered in the UK, the technology is not far removed from the gender or age identifying algorithms that come with some camera models that are sold in this country.

The links between Chinese state-owned CCTV companies and human rights abuses rightly drives the opposition to their use in the UK, but what is sometimes forgotten is the threat to privacy and civil liberties that this advanced surveillance poses, no matter who makes the hardware.

It is now a reality that a significant minority of schools, universities, hospitals and local councils have CCTV that can automatically analyse objects, peoples’ behaviour and even profile their age and gender. Big Brother Watch’s investigation into the rise of Chinese state-owned CCTV found that more than 10% of public bodies had some kind of advanced surveillance capabilities — and that number would only rise when non-Chinese manufacturers are added into the mix.

Although many public sector organisations said they do not use the high-tech add-ons at the moment, the question remains why they have them at all if there is no plan for their use. It is no stretch of the imagination that in the future the mere existence of these features will tempt a growing number of organisations to use them.

Of particular concern is Wandsworth and Richmond Councils’ recent multi-million pound deal for a cutting-edge 900 camera equipped with facial detection made by Dahua. The councils claim that it will not be used “at this point” but if intrusive surveillance becomes more acceptable then that could change quickly, especially if privacy protections are weakened in the government’s planned revisions to data protection rules.

Last month the Metropolitan Police gave a glimpse into what society under the watchful eye of high-tech CCTV could look like. Just as mask mandates in England were scrapped, the Met rolled up on Oxford Street and ran the faces of thousands of innocent passers-by through authoritarian facial recognition algorithms over an afternoon. Only four men out of thousands subjected to face-scanning were arrested and even then, one of them was flagged for traffic offences. In addition, a young black man was also wrongly identified by the facial recognition system.

Cheap Chinese-made CCTV cameras with high-tech tools are increasingly common and threaten to normalise AI-driven surveillance in the UK. Pushback is needed to make sure that live facial recognition and other algorithmic monitoring does not become the norm on every street corner.

Jake Hurfurt is Head of Research and Investigations at Big Brother Watch.