Cambridge’s “public space surveillance cameras” from company implicated in Uyghur genocide

Hikvision CCTV cameras are located through Cambridge city centre. The company has long been criticised by MPs and campaigners on security and human rights grounds, and senior government ministers want the cameras banned from the UK.

A camera by Hikvision in Cambridge is positioned over Pembroke Street and Trumpington Street.
Jay Richardson

by Jay Richardson

29th April 2023

Cambridge City Council and Huntingdonshire District Council have installed nearly three dozen cameras manufactured by Hikvision, a primary supplier of biometric surveillance technologies to forced internment camps targeting the Uyghur ethnic group in China.

In a statement to the sonification, Madeleine Stone, Legal and Policy Officer at Big Brother Watch, said: “It is deeply concerning that Huntingdonshire District Council and Cambridge City Council are using intrusive Hikvision devices to surveil members of the public. Taxpayers’ money should not be funding companies linked to grave human rights abuses in China. The Government must urgently act to ban Chinese state-owned CCTV from the UK.”

Cambridgeshire County Council spokesperson Eden Palmer confirmed that its cameras are provided as a shared service by Huntingdonshire District Council as “public space surveillance cameras for the city.” the sonification has located 34 Hikvision cameras in Cambridge city centre—on Pembroke Street, Trumpington Street, Midsummer Common, Christ’s Pieces, Round Church Street, Sidney Street, Hills Road, Saint Andrew’s Street, Market Street, Silver Street, Emmanuel Road, Downing Street, King Street, Hobson Street, Market Hill, Senate House Hill, Trinity Street, King’s Parade, Fitzroy Street, Burleigh Street, Park Terrace, and Regent Street, of which some are operated by Cambridge City Council. Signage explaining the cameras’ provenance and purpose is often not located on the same structure as the cameras themselves, or even within 50 metres.

The government’s Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Professor Fraser Sampson, issued a press release in May 2022 asking central and local government ministers to “clarify their positions” on Hikvision. Following reports that Sajid Javid, then Health Secretary, had banned Hikvision from bidding for Department of Health contracts over “ethical concerns,” Prof Sampson said: “If other areas of national and local government have carried out due diligence in relation to their human rights obligations, I’d be interested to see the information they used; if they haven’t then I’d be interested to understand how the risks are being properly addressed.”

Neil Howard, CCTV Operations Manager for the shared CCTV service between Huntingdonshire District Council and Cambridge City Council, confirmed that none of the joint service’s cameras currently have facial recognition enabled. He stated that the councils do not deal with Hikvision directly, but have a contract with Synectics, which instals cameras supplied by Hikvision.

Howard acknowledged that the UK government will not use Hikvision cameras on critical or sensitive sites. He added, “The CCTV network that we have in Cambridge is not connected to any critical or sensitive infrastructure. As these cameras are in public spaces and not in residential areas, consultation with residents is not required.”

In 2019, Synectics announced an “integration partnership” with the Israeli startup AnyVision, which has provided facial, body, and object recognition AI to Israeli military forces in occupied Palestine. A report published on 2 May by Amnesty International identified Hikvision as one of two manufacturers whose cameras enable apartheid against Palestinians by tracking their movements in cities throughout the occupied territories.

A 2022 report by Big Brother Watch estimated that over 10,000 cameras by Hikvision and Dahua, another camera provider to forced internment camps which is 10% owned by the state-owned China Mobile, were in use by UK public bodies, including 73.2% of local authorities, 34.9% of police forces, and 63.4% of schools. In September 2020, the Guardian revealed that Hikvision cameras had been installed in school toilets in Hunstanton, in west Norfolk, alongside leisure centres in London and hundreds of other public locations throughout the UK, and that David Lloyd leisure centres had deployed Hikvision thermal cameras.

A report by Professor Fraser Sampson in February 2023, based on surveys sent to police forces and crime agencies throughout England and Wales, found that “the full capability of some of the technology owned by some respondents is not fully understood, be that at the point of purchase or further down the line when software updates are downloaded.” The report said forces and agencies conducted “very little” specialised cybersecurity testing on parts of their own equipment, and said there are “clearly issues with existing procurement processes.” Under the government’s Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, which is now waiting for its second reading in the House of Commons, the Office of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner would be closed, and the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice abolished.

A July 2021 report by the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee recommended a complete ban on Hikvision and Dahua cameras in the UK. Citing a 2020 press release by the Uyghur Human Rights Project, the report stated Hikvision and Dahua had each won over $1 billion in Chinese government-backed contracts “in the Uyghur region” since 2016, including $272 million between 2016 and 2017, and described Hikvision devices as the “primary camera technology used in the internment camps.” Chinese state-owned enterprises and investment funds own 41.88% of the company.

The cameras are central to an infrastructure of mass surveillance established in Xinjiang, which enables what the US and UK have characterised as a genocide. Human Rights Watch said it has documented crimes against humanity against Turkic Muslim people, and that footage from cameras throughout the region is fed into a large-scale database of biometric and behavioural data on individuals, which is used to compile arrest lists.

Researchers estimate that over a million people are detained in ‘re-education camps’ at 380 suspected sites in Xinjiang, where alleged atrocities include torture, forced sterilisation, forced labour, disappearances, cultural and religious erasure, family separation, rape and extreme sexual violence, mass arbitrary detention and arrest, and forced relocation. The mass surveillance programme relies partly on some Hikvision models’ facial recognition and infrared vision capabilities, along with software features that Hikvision has said can identify gender and age, and a UK government expert has described as being “designed to detect racial characteristics.” Their deployment in China was first reported by the New York Times in 2019. The Trump administration blacklisted Hikvision less than six months later and a federal contract ban took effect in August 2020.

Privacy Impact Assessment by Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire Councils specifies that the cameras, which are almost all ‘DarkFighter’ models with improved low-light sensitivity, can provide remote live feeds to Cambridgeshire Police, and that some of them will be used to “proactively to gather identities of individuals as required.” It also specifies vehicle-mounted Hikvision cameras, labelled “ISS fleet.” The document says the shared camera service is “working towards being fully accredited by the industry inspectorates to all required standards.” Spokespeople for the County Council did not answer questions from the sonification about which standards the system has not met, and did not comment on the prohibition of Hikvision cameras by Tesco and the Welsh government and police. Cambridge City Council has not published Privacy Impact Assessments for the cameras it manages and did not offer comment.

Accounts for Huntingdonshire District Council show that, between 2017 and 2020, it received £1.215m from Cambridge City Council for the joint CCTV service and spent £795,000 on CCTV.

In 2021, researchers discovered a critical vulnerability in some Hikvision models’ firmware that allowed full remote access to the devices. In a November 2022 statement to Reuters, a company spokesperson said: “Hikvision cannot transmit data from end-users to third parties, we do not manage end-user databases, nor do we sell cloud storage in the UK.”

A July 2022 statement issued by a cross-party group of 67 MPs called for a “ban on the sale and operation of Hikvision and Dahua surveillance equipment in the UK.” Four months later, Oliver Dowden, then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and now deputy PM, notified Parliament that visual surveillance systems produced by companies subject to China’s National Intelligence Law would be banned from government-designated “sensitive sites,” and that Departments had been asked to consider proactively removing them.

In a statement to Tech Monitor in July 2022, HikVision said: “CCTV has always played a critical role in the UK in the fight against crime and terrorism. The UK also has fringe groups who would like to see a massive reduction of CCTV in the UK who are willing to throw allegations around about CCTV, and who would lie to demonise Hikvision. Hikvision has always worked with government bodies to provide solutions to the UK’s CCTV requirements.”

In a joint statement to the sonification, Huntingdonshire District Council and Cambridge City Council said: “The shared CCTV partnership complies with government guidelines and all relevant legislation on the use of CCTV. The system in use in Cambridge was upgraded in 2019 following a competitive tender process.

“Both councils are aware of the Big Brother Watch campaign, and will keep the position under review.” °

A new version of this article was published on 2 May 2023, with the following additions and corrections:

  • Number of cameras updated from 14 to 34; added Downing Street, King Street, Hobson Street, Market Hill, Senate House Hill, Trinity Street, King’s Parade, Fitzroy Street, Burleigh Street, Park Terrace, and Regent Street; removed specific reference to number operated by Cambridge City Council

  • Added description of camera signage

  • Added references to statements and reports by the UK government Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner

  • Added references to AnyVision and to Amnesty International’s ‘Automated Apartheid’ report, including its citation of Hikvision cameras’ gender and age recognition features

  • Added reference to financial statements by Huntingdonshire District Council


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