by Jake Hurfurt
Thursday, 10
February 2022
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07:30

Chinese CCTV is coming to to a town near you

AI-powered cameras from the East are popping up across the country
by Jake Hurfurt
Credit: Getty

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.

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stephen archer
stephen archer
4 months ago

This is just another aspect of technology changing the landscape of the planet and veering towards a future which I will thankfully no longer be a part of in years to come. I started my career in IT learning programming in sixth form in 1970 and a year later at uni I was entering machine code on minicomputers directly into primary memory via the console’s key switches. So what’s changed in 50 years? Programming and logic technology hasn’t changed an awful lot in basic principles although applications have exploded like the Big bang (pattern recognition, AI, big data, data mining) but communication technology and VLSI (very large scale integration) have been the main enablers over the last 20 or so years. Technology is amazing and there are countless contributions through it towards a better society but tragically for the human race the strategic exploiters, Big Tech (applications), powerful corporations, and authoritarian regimes have taken control of the technology and I see no end in sight to how they will continue to (mis)use this to monitor, restrict and force conformance on the populations. Less than two years ago the epidemiologist Johan Giesecke was adamant that the west would never employ the Chinese authoritarian model of lockdowns and a few months later this was reality, and with little or no opposition or uproar thanks to mass indoctrination through media/technology. Just think about how quickly digital vaccine passports were rolled out and working on a global scale? Even if individuals wanted to opt out of society and ditch their smartphones or home Internet connections would normal living be at all possible? I’ve been lucky enough to have been born and lived in the best years for humanity, at least in Europe. I feel pity and concern for the younger generations.

Last edited 4 months ago by stephen archer
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
4 months ago
Reply to  stephen archer

I share your age and sentiment, but isn’t it horribly depressing when “I won’t be alive to see it” is a source of comfort.

stephen archer
stephen archer
4 months ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Yes, definitely for the younger generations although they’ve been blinded by application technology (i.e. social media, smartphone-controlled lives) and are sleepwalking into what will transpire in the future. Coupled with the environmental issues, never ending conflicts and rapid decimation of species, I would not be looking to have children in today’s and tomorrow’s world. Sorry for being so pessimistic. I believe a lot is reversible, also thanks to developing technologies, but the world leaders and large corporations have shown themselves to be either incompetent, self centred and/or totally without scruples.

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
4 months ago
Reply to  stephen archer

I’m more optimistic because of the widespread revolts against “expert” government. The Canadian Truckers are only the latest example.

The general problem for “experts” is that their grasp exceeds their competence, and it’s obvious. It’s easier to install AI suveillance than it is to get people to accept the snooping. The cameras may be cheap, but they are also easily disabled. Any 8 year old with a sling shot or a BB gun can take out lots of cameras. Even if they’re only $50 each, and $100 to install, replacing a number of smashed cameras is going to be expensive.

I see people tiring of arbitrary mandates, and removing the governments that impose them, one way or another. Either they will swamp the margin of fraud in elections, or make enough trouble through disobedience and vigilantism to force changes in government policy.

Even Communist dictatorships were overthrown, once the vast majority of people got tired of the lies. Why should pseudo democracies, which are actually run by “experts” promulgating ridiculous edicts, be any more successful?

Last edited 4 months ago by Douglas Proudfoot
Alison Tyler
Alison Tyler
4 months ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Indeed, but I worry for my children and especially for my grandchildren who will never know what they have lost.

Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
4 months ago

The Met actually boasted about running live facial recognition technology on thousands of people “as part of ongoing work to tackle serious and violent crime”, even though no serious or violent crime was actually occurring. Important to push back on this as hard as we all can, as authoritarians will always seek to normalise and extend oppression.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
4 months ago

This is a message that cannot be stressed often and loudly enough.

D Ward
D Ward
4 months ago

So why are Richmond and Wandsworth buying these cameras, if there is “no intention of using them at this point”? Presumably there is an intention to use them in the future? What could residents of those Boroughs do to challenge this purchase?

Ian Moore
Ian Moore
4 months ago

Sinister.

Dapple Grey
Dapple Grey
4 months ago

Thank you for an interesting article.
However there is an exception to this kowtowing to the CCP, and that is S Korea.
Last year, Joseon Exorcist, a big budget film with an excellent cast was cancelled after a couple of episodes after a huge backlash and corporate sponsors pulling out.
This was partly because of historical inaccuracies but also due to Chinese props being used.
Korean dramas are becoming increasingly popular across the world and it’s good to know at least they are standing up to China.

Richard Hopkins
Richard Hopkins
4 months ago

We are living very different lives since the Covid lockdown. Who would have believed this possible three years ago? The import of this CCP approved CCTV technology is a sure indication that the Covid-1984 measures will be around longer than the Covid-19 virus itself.

Benjamin Jones
Benjamin Jones
4 months ago

Covid-1984. Very clever and I may well nick that if you don’t mind.

Richard Hopkins
Richard Hopkins
4 months ago

I can’t take any credit for it. Early on in the pandemic an American academic used the term on a discussion on the World Service in 2020. I was surprised that as an American she was familiar with Orwell. Her observation that the pandemic was being utilised for a raft of authoritarian measures, that would not be removed, has proved to be prescient.