Hikvision Source Code Transparency Center Examined

By John Honovich, Published on May 14, 2018

Following criticism of Hikvision's Chinese government ownership and Hikvision's IP camera backdoor, the company has responded with a series of steps including hiring a Director of Cybersecurity and starting a dedicated cybersecurity hotline.

The most recent move has been launching the "Industry’s First Source Code Transparency Center" to US government agencies.

In this note, based on direct feedback from Hikvision corporate, we examine the Center, including its potential benefits and concerns.

Center Overview

Expanding on the brief public announcement, Hikvision explained to IPVM that:

Source codes are core assets of our company and access to the Source Code Transparency Center will be handled accordingly. Only applicable US government agencies with relevant credentials will be considered for access to the Transparency Center. Independent researchers and experts will not be granted access. The reviewer will have to be physically present in the Hikvision facility in California and the time frame for access depends on the specific circumstances and requirements of the agency.

Non-disclosure agreements (NDA) are required by Hikvision for any agency seeking to examine Hikvision's source code. Hikvision declined any further comment on the terms of the agreement or any exceptions for issues of security or vulnerabilities found.

Finally, researchers raised questions about how they could ensure that the code shared for review would match the code in actual products. Hikvision explained to IPVM that:

Verifying that firmware used in products delivered matches with source code reviewed are the same is not easy, but we trust that US government agencies involved would have the right capabilities to do that.

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Marketing Benefits / Partners Enthused

Minimally, this is a strong marketing move that has invigorated many Hikvision partners, as explained by them in our initial discussion.

Looks like HikVision are taking BIG steps to try and recover the reputational damage done by their recent spate of security flaws/"back doors" which have been aired on MANY sites (this one included).

The model they're using seems aimed at providing access to their NVR and Camera source code, whilst still protecting their Intellectual Property - and I personally think it's a bold move which should be applauded.

A key theme is that this disproves the fears that Hikvision / Chinese government would use Hikvision's products to spy on foreign countries:

The fact remains though, if Hikvision's business plan is to infiltrate america via Cyber warfare, then they sure did make themselves really vulnerable with this move.

This is a humble and transparent move by Hikvision which is exactly what they needed to do.

And that now the burden is on the US government to find vulnerabilities:

Some of the Nay Sayers are funny. Hikvision is allowing the US govt to view their source code and you are "skeptical"? We keep hearing that Hikvision is so shady and they hide this and that and blah blah blah! Now here is Hikvision saying "Hey US govt, you think we are spying on you? Here is our dam source code, Have at it and show us where we are spying on you! Donald, Here look!!!"

Plus, the restrictions imposed are reasonable to protect US organizations from stealing from Hikvision:

This isn’t “hey everyone come check out our source code so you can steal it”. It’s lets put these politicians and agencies at ease that we aren’t putting spyware in our cameras.

Problem #1 - No Verification Possible

No way exists to verify that the code shared with visitors is the actual code running in Hikvision's products, such that any real vulnerabilities or backdoors could be easily hidden. Hikvision says US government agencies could accomplish this but Hikvision provides no explanation have while real cybersecurity researchers like Bashis do not believe this can be verified.

Problem #2 - Extremely Difficult To Find

Finding vulnerabilities is not simple. Purposely included backdoors are even more difficult. Even if the production source code was provided, that can easily consist of hundreds of thousands of lines of code. Test yourself. Here is the source code to ZoneMinder, the open source VMS application. Take as much time as you want. If you can even understand the basic structure of the code, that puts you in the top 1% of 'IT guys'. Finding vulnerabilities is that much harder.

Problem #3 - Harder Yet In Hikvision's Office

Hikvision makes it more difficult by forcing US government agencies to fly to southern California and have to do this inside of Hikvision's office. Even an expert researcher (and Hikvision has barred independent researchers and experts) would need weeks to go through the code. Even if Hikvision allowed this (and that is not clear from Hikvision's response), the time and cost would be extremely significant, especially since the main reason US government agencies have used Hikvision is Hikvision's low cost. If US government agencies need to pay for such code review, they would save money by simply buying non-Chinese government made products.

Problem #4 - NDA Requirement Blocks Disclosure

Even if Hikvision shares production source code and even if a US government agency is willing to spend a significant amount of money reviewing the source code, any vulnerabilities or backdoors that are found will be hidden by Hikvision's requirements of those reviewers signing an NDA.

'Dedicated' Hotline Broken

Last fall, Hikvision had another cybersecurity initiative, a 'dedicated' cybersecurity hotline, which was praised by the press 6 months ago but has been broken for at least 3 months. IPVM has repeatedly called the 'dedicated' cybersecurity hotline. While the greeting identifies it as the cybersecurity hotline, the call is always re-routed into general dealer technical support, where the operators confirmed there is no 'dedicated' hotline. Worse, on our most recent call, the dealer technical support representative did not know about Hikvision's HikConnect cloud vulnerability from a few weeks ago. Even when we gave him Hikvision's own case number (HSRC-201804-09), he still did not know nor could find any information about it.

We have informed Hikvision corporate of the hotline's problems and we would hope, at least for appearance's sake, that they would, at least temporarily, fix the hotline. Hikvision acknowledged our report of the broken hotline but declined comment.

Polarizing But Net Positive Marketing Impact For Hikvision

We expect the 'transparency' center to further polarize opinion about Hikvision but moderately help their marketing perception, as we see 3 rough responses:

  • Supporters will cheer this move as proof that Hikvision has nothing to hide.
  • Those neutral will likely have a positive initial response since few have much understanding or experience conducting source code reviews, leading them to assume that a 'transparency' center truly opens Hikvision up. However, to the extent they think through the complications and restrictions involved, they may become more skeptical.
  • Detractors will see this as yet another Hikvision marketing move to distract from Hikvision's issues.

What makes this so complicated (and a great marketing move) is that the technical issues are significant and can easily be viewed as required (e.g., protecting Hikvision's IP from the US government stealing it) or a smokescreen (i.e., barriers from actually finding vulnerabilities).

Poll / Vote

3 reports cite this report:

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