Chinese cameras ban at U.S. facilities

U.S. federal agencies are yet to comply with a mandate on Chinese made surveillance cameras which was imposed by the Congress in 2018. The agencies are required to remove the cameras before the August 13th deadline.

Background 

Owing to the pinched relations between the U.S. and China, there has been heightened concern in the U.S. about the threats posed by products built with core Chinese technologies. It is alleged that these technologies could be weaponised and used by Beijing for hacking into key U.S. installations. The U.S. is also concerned about China’s ambition to become a technological superpower challenging its supremacy in the Asia Pacific. 

In 2018, the National Defense Authorization Act which outlines the budget and spending for the Defense Department included an amendment under which the government was banned from purchasing Chinese made surveillance equipment. China’s two largest camera makers, Hangzhou Hikvision Digital (42 per cent owned by the Chinese government) and Zhejiang Dahua Technology Co. were affected by the ban. 

Analysis      

Chinese-made surveillance cameras are still installed in U.S. military bases, just five weeks before a federal ban on such equipment comes into force. 1700 Hikvision and Dahua cameras are still used because the extended  supply chain and licensing agreement have made it virtually impossible to identify if the product was made in China or contains components that violate the act. 

Following the ban, only 35 per cent of the agencies had fully complied with the mandate. The other agencies are now trying to identify the cameras manually because they are uncertain about the number and type of devices connected to their network. These cameras remain in place at the Peterson Airforce Base in Colorado and the headquarters of Air Force Space Command. The agency spent $112,000 on Hikvision cameras in 2016 and they now say they plan to “evaluate these systems and replace them”. The U.S. Navy research base in Florida purchased the cameras and telecommunication equipment from Hikvision and two other suppliers, after the National Defense Authorization Act. Officials notified that the cameras were used as part of a training system and were not connected to the Internet. In the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune tender for security cameras the agency noted that only Hikvision equipment would “work in a network with other cameras”. Police departments are also reliant on Hikvision cameras. 

Hikvision asserted that its devices are secure and that they are not being used to spy on behalf of the Chinese government. A spokeswoman for Hikvision said that the company "believes the products it builds and distributes around the world must meet the highest standards of not only quality but also security. We stand by our products and processes." The company stated that once pieces of equipment are sold to customers and government-owned shareholders, it does not have access to cameras and that it is not involved in Hikvision's day-to-day operations.

China’s Huawei is also barred by the NDAA to supply to federal agencies. Huawei supplies chips to U.S. surveillance camera makers. Hikvision said it was “disappointed” with the legislation, which was “quickly drafted without sufficient evidence, review or investigation”.

Another concern for the government is that it is difficult to track the Hikvision cameras because U.S. companies buy the hardware from Hikvision, repackage and sell it under their own names. This is a “real concern” for government security managers, said John Honovich, founder of video surveillance research site IPVM, some of whom are unsure of the provenance of their cameras.

Assessment 

  • The US is rightfully concerned about China’s domestic surveillance that poses the threat of unchecked human rights abuses in China. China government’s 2020 project called ‘xueling’ or sharp eyes is alarming and has led to the rapid expansion of algorithmic surveillance. It is likely to further pervasive and repressive surveillance. 
  • We believe that its state policies have made it ethical for private companies to assist in mass surveillance and turn over their data to the government. We reckon that the adoption of such technologies combined with  Artificial Intelligence and 5G telecommunication is expected to take privacy to a new low. In a few years, it will be difficult for us to hide. 
  • We feel that the costs for replacing the existing gear will be dependent on the funding from Congress. Outside of funding, operational issues including disruption to the services have to be considered. We believe that the administration’s aim to get rid of ‘Made in China’ will be met with re-routing and circumventing within the supply chain. 
  • Such repressive technologies have a pattern that can be adopted by other regimes around the world. 

 

Image Courtesy - Mike Fleming

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