Surveillance cameras made by Hikvision, the Chinese company that has been implicated in grave human rights violations and has been blacklisted by the US government, are being used across the UK, from leisure centres in London to school toilets in west Norfolk.
While use of the surveillance cameras had already rung alarm bells in the British parliament last year, use of the cameras has expanded in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic despite allegations by the US government that the company’s cameras have been used to monitor Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China who are being held in internment camps.
China experts in the US have also pointed to concern among US intelligence agencies that the cameras could be used by Chinese intelligence to spy or collect data from individuals outside China.
“The concern is, are the Chinese extra-territorialising their surveillance state? You could make a case that they are when other countries are using technologies like Hikvision that they use on their own citizens. They can now do globally,” said James Lewis, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.
Hikvision has rebutted those concerns and said there is no evidence that surveillance collected in other countries using its cameras has ever been sent to Beijing.
But the deployment of the Hikvision cameras without any formal statement of concern by the British government – public records show they are being used in Kensington and Chelsea, Chelmsford, Guildford council, Coventry council, and Mole Valley council, among others – is evidence of how the British and US governments have diverged in their responses to concerns about Chinese surveillance and human rights abuses.
David Lloyd Leisure, the upmarket UK gym chain that has said it has “zero tolerance” for modern slavery, deployed Hikvision thermal cameras in some of its gyms as part of its Covid-19 safety protocol.
In west Norfolk, public records show the cameras have been installed in toilets in Smithdon high school in Hunstanton, reportedly “to secure the health and personal safety of all students and to prevent vandalism and damage”.
The Guardian reported in February that the Home Office had agreed to allow Hikvision to attend a security and policing trade fair it was hosting in Farnborough, Hampshire. The invitation came just months after the US government announced that Hikvision was one of dozens of Chinese companies “implicated in human rights violations and abuses” in China in connection to the country’s campaign of “repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance” in Xinjiang.
The company, the world’s largest purveyor of surveillance equipment, has acknowledged its cameras may have been used in “re-education camps”, the internment camps that are used to detain at least a million people from China’s Muslim minorities.
Hikvision cameras are still used in the US but the company was placed on the US Department of Commerce’s entities list last year, which prohibits Hikvision from buying parts and components from US companies without a special licence. The Pentagon has also included the company on a list of groups that are owned or controlled by the Chinese military. Hikvision has denied the claim.
A report in the Intercept last year estimated there were more than 1.2m Hikvision cameras in the UK. The Guardian asked councils that use Hikvision cameras to comment but only one, Guildford council, replied.
A spokesperson said: “We do currently use those cameras in the area, but we were not aware of these claims at the time of procurement.”
One client of David Lloyd’s gym in Finchley, north London, who declined to be named because he has to travel to China for work and was nervous about possible retaliation, said he had noticed Hikvision thermal cameras had recently been installed in what he assumed was part of the leisure centre’s Covid preparation plans.
“I was rather shocked to see this having been aware of Hikvision for some time and knowing of their involvement in the mass internment of over a million members of the Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang,” the person said.
One of the gym’s clients said he informed the gym’s management of his concerns regarding the “ethics of their procurement and tacit support for a company implicated in human rights abuses”. He said the gym subsequently told him they had raised it with the “head office” who are alleged to have said they had “no issues” using it since its use is legal in the UK.
David Lloyd Leisure declined to comment on the use of Hikvision cameras or its client’s concerns.
“We never comment on specific systems, safety measures or individual suppliers as a matter of policy,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement. The person said the group was “committed to the health and safety of our members and our team” and that it had put “a number of systems in place which have been introduced or upgraded in order to ensure we are Covid-19 compliant, all of which meet or exceed stated UK standards and current legislation”.
The group declined to comment on whether its use of Hikvision cameras was consistent with the principles of its anti-slavery pledge in 2019, in which the company said it had a “zero-tolerance approach” to modern slavery and is “committed to acting ethically and with integrity in all our business dealings and relationships to ensure that modern slavery is not taking place in our business or supply chains”.
Hikvision said it took reports of human rights violations “very seriously and recognises our responsibility for protecting people”.
“We have been engaging with the UK and US government to clarify misunderstandings about the company and address their concerns. Hikvision has been consistently focused on technology leadership, centred on customer service and committed to cybersecurity standards, which are compliant with the most rigorous certifications, and best practices,” the company said.
In response to questions about US concerns over possible use of Hikvision by Chinese intelligence, the company said: “Hikvision’s cybersecurity standards are compliant with the most rigorous certifications. The company has worked with governments in the US and UK to make our products secure.”
Samuel Woodhams, a digital rights researcher at the London-based internet research firm Top10VPN, said the widespread use of the cameras could lead to the introduction of even more advanced surveillance technologies, including thermal imaging and facial recognition cameras.
“Hikvision, along with other controversial surveillance companies, appear to be trying to profit from the pandemic and extend their reach within the UK. Public authorities and businesses should keep in mind that once increased surveillance measures are introduced, they are difficult to reverse and the damage done to citizens’ individual liberties can be lasting,” Woodhams said.