By Local Democracy Reporters
THE company behind the world’s most intrusive surveillance networks designed to keep tabs on ethnic minorities and political dissidents has supplied more than 150 CCTV cameras to councils across Essex.
An investigation by the Local Democracy Reporting Service has uncovered how thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being used by councils to purchase surveillance cameras that have been manufactured by the Chinese firm Hikvision.
The security firm has become notorious for helping establish an oppressive surveillance state in parts of China and Tibet, leading to more than a million people being detained due to their ethnicity or their political views.
The company is also known to have deep ties to the Chinese government, leading to concerns about privacy and security that are so serious that the US and Australia has placed strict restrictions on the use of the technology.
Freedom of Information findings show that across Essex, councils are using more than 155 cameras made by Hikvision.
Southend Council has purchased 79, Thurrock Council has 56, including several which can automatically track movement, and Essex County Council has 20.
In all these cases, the cameras are inside local government buildings.
Southend and the county council said they are unable to confirm how much they have paid for the cameras but Thurrock said that between 2015 and 2018, £9,690 had been spent.
It is likely there are many more across the county, including in Basildon where the council refused to disclose any information about the cameras they have purchased due to fears they could be “intercepted”.
Matteo Mecacci, president of the advocacy group International Campaign for Tibet, said: “Leaders in other countries are concerned about Hikvision in part because it poses a threat to national security.
“As a company controlled by the Chinese government, which is not bound by the rule of law and does not protect the privacy of any of its citizens, Hikvision is objectively a danger to people in free societies like ours.
“It is simply too risky to trust Hikvision to record our public spaces without violating the information security of people in those spaces. As China’s national intelligence law forces all Chinese companies to cooperate with the government, there is no legal protection that sensitive data collected abroad by Chinese companies won’t be shared with Beijing, and this should scare all of us.”
Charles Rollet, who works with the surveillance information group IPVM also compared concerns about Hikvision to those raised about Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.
He said: “Unlike Huawei, whose ownership remains murky, Hikvision’s relationship is much more direct. Hikvision’s parent company is the China Electronics Technology Group, a state-owned Chinese defence conglomerate. The chairman himself is a government official, serving as a deputy to the National People’s Congress.”
Hikvision did not respond to a request for comment but in a public statement released this month, the company said it takes concerns about human rights “very seriously”.
Councillor calls concerns ‘too serious and worrying to ignore’
The chairman of Southend’s Labour Group has called for a review of the council’s procurement process and said questions need to be answered about security.
Labour Councillor Matt Dent said the issues surrounding Hikvision raise serious questions about whether proper research is being done before purchases are made.
“It casts doubt over the council’s due diligence when it is contracting these things out, particularly with something as important as CCTV,” he said.
“The security and human rights concerns inherent in this are too serious and worrying to ignore and I would like to see what consideration was given to this – the worrying possibility is that there wasn’t any.”
He went on to say that he expected councils to have paid more attention to these issues after it was revealed that the Essex Pension Fund had invested millions of pounds into companies that have been accused of ties to human rights abuses, arms sales and use of child labour.
He added that he’d like to see a review of the council’s procurement process “so we get this right off the bat”.
Southend’s Conservative council leader, Tony Cox said: “As a council we follow the expert advice of the security services and comply with all relevant legislation when comes to the installing of any CCTV cameras in our town.
“I condemn china’s treatment of the Tibetan people no one should have to live in a police state.
“As concerns have been raised in relation to the security cameras, which serve as a valuable tool in tackling anti-social behaviour and crime in our town, we will continue to seek up to date advice in relation to Hikvision and their continued use”.
A spokesperson for the council said: “The procurement process is thorough and professional and includes stringent research of each viable option before signing any contracts.
“Whilst costing is a part of the procurement process, this is not the key part of procuring, as we will always ensure that the company we select offers the best service for our residents.
“Ongoing investigations into Hikvision mean we are continuously monitoring the current situation.”
He continued: “We are currently checking the technical configuration and security standards of the existing cameras to further test the quality, safety and security of the existing cameras.”
The council is currently looking into a new CCTV contract and expects the procurement process to begin in summer 2019. However, they did not rule out purchasing more surveillance equipment from Hikvision.
Essex County Council and Thurrock Council were asked to comment on this issue but neither have responded.
How Hikvision’s technology helped create totalitarian states in China
The remote Himalayan nation of Tibet has been occupied and ruled by China for the past 60 years and it has been transformed into one of the most intrusive police and security states anywhere in the world.
Tibet’s population, particularly in the capital city of Lhasa, face intense daily surveillance and are profiled and targeted for any actions that imply they could be guilty of political dissent.
Their ‘crimes’ could include having a picture of the Dalai Lama, owning a Tibetan flag or calling for their country to be given independence.
Punishments often mean lengthy prison terms and often torture, according to the United Nations (UN).
They are often monitored using technology made by companies like Hikvision, which has developed facial recognition cameras capable of distinguishing entire ethnic populations from the Chinese.
These same systems have been rolled out at secret internment camps in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang, where the UN has reported more than a million Muslim civilians are being held for “political re-education”.
The president of the advocacy group International Campaign for Tibet, Matteo Mecacci, said: “Enabling authoritarian governments to use technology to oppress their own people should not be supported by sensible business or institutional partners.”