Hikvision Refuses UK Surveillance Camera Commissioner Inquiries On Human Rights Abuses

By Charles Rollet, Published Aug 10, 2021, 08:11am EDT

The UK's Surveillance Camera Commissioner wrote a letter to Hikvision inquiring about 'human rights abuses' yet Hikvision has so far refused to answer, offering a meeting instead - which the Commissioner declined until Hikvision provides a written and public "substantive response".

Watch the 2-minute video that explains the issues involved:

This comes a month after the UK Foreign Affairs Committee recommended a full ban of Hikvision in the UK.

Inside this report, we examine the letters and share input from the Commissioner, Fraser Sampson, in an interview he did with IPVM.

UPDATE August 11, 2021: After IPVM's report was published, Hikvision responded, ignoring most of the Commissioner's questions and stating it is "very difficult" to "publicly answer narrow pointed questions on paper" as this "leads to more questions and a kangaroo trial by media", while falsely claiming "operational matters are not within our remit" despite its huge direct deals with Xinjiang police.

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The Commissioner accepted Hikvision's offer of meeting with Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper, the D.C. lawyer Hikvision hired who determined the PRC firm did not "knowingly or intentionally" abuse human rights in Xinjiang.

Inquiries Overview

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The Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner asked Hikvision, in a July 16, 2021 letter pointed questions about its Xinjiang involvement after Hikvision UK denounced the Foreign Affairs Committee's ban recommendation, inquiring:

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  • "whether your camera technology has in fact been used in the Uyghur internment camps"
  • "whether you accept that basic premise, namely that crimes are being committed against the Uyghurs"
  • "Is it your position that Hikvision had no knowledge of the use(s) of its surveillance camera systems in the internment facilities?

In response, Hikvision has offered a meeting, but the Commissioner declined until Hikvision provides a written and public "substantive response", which Hikvision has yet to do.

Sampson has also called for updating the Surveillance Camera Code and encouraged talks on the "risks and considerations of extra-territorial ownership". Sampson told IPVM he supports strong "vetting" and "due diligence" of providers but not a full US-style blacklist.

Background On Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Code

The Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner is a UK government position (covering England and Wales only, not Scotland) intended to encourage compliance with the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice, a set of 2013 guidelines for local police and town councils for camera systems that film public spaces.

For more on the Code, read IPVM's quick guide here.

The position is the UK's highest in terms of surveillance camera compliance but carries no formal enforcement or inspection powers. In March, the Biometrics Commissioner and Surveillance Camera Commissioner (once separate) were merged and the new BSCC appointed was Fraser Sampson, a former police officer and current lawyer/Sheffield University professor specializing in policing.

Angry Hikvision UK Letter To Partners Revealed

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Last week, the Commissioner published a July 12, 2021 Hikvision letter sent to UK partners denouncing the UK Foreign Affairs Committee's recommendation that Hikvision "not be permitted to operate in the UK" over its "association with the Xinjiang atrocities", namely providing "the primary camera technology used in the internment camps".

In its partner letter, Hikvision denounced the Committee's recommendation as "unsubstantiated", "not underpinned by evidence", "knee-jerk", "motivated by political influences", "a staggering leap", and more: :

On human rights the report states cameras made by the Chinese firm Hikvision have been deployed throughout Xinjiang and provide the primary camera technology used in the internment camps. This is unsubstantiated and not underpinned by evidence. Based on these assertions the Committee has recommended a ban on Hikvision. This knee jerk response is entirely disproportionate, ill-measured, and reinforces the notion that this is motivated by political influences. This is a staggering leap for the Committee to make, and is not based on any concrete evidence. Having done so, this sends an unacceptable message to all those that support evidence based policy making. [emphasis added]

Contrary to its claims the recommendation is "unsubstantiated", Hikvision is deeply involved in Xinjiang; as Hikvision disclosed in its Half-Year-Report, it is contracted to build and operate five huge Xinjiang police surveillance projects:

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These Hikvision projects - some of which include cameras for re-education camps and mosques - were the reason Norway's independent Council On Ethics found the company's "human rights abuses to be ongoing".

Hikvision's letter to partners touted the conclusion of its Xinjiang investigation that Hikvision did not "knowingly or intentionally" commit human rights abuses when it entered into the five projects:

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Hikvision has invested significant resources to strengthen its corporate governance framework including retaining Arent Fox, led by human rights expert and former US Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper, to advise on human rights compliance. Importantly, following an investigation, the Arent Fox team concluded that, ‘In the end, we do not find that Hikvision entered into the five projects in Xinjiang with the intent to knowingly engage in human rights abuses or find that Hikvision knowingly or intentionally committed human rights abuses itself or that it acted in wilful disregard.’ [emphasis added]

Inquires On Hikvision 'Association With The Xinjiang Atrocities'

On July 16, Sampson sent a letter to Hikvision inquiring about its letter to partners, asking to what extent is Hikvision "associated with the Xinjiang atrocities":

You describe the Committee’s finding that your cameras have been deployed throughout Xinjiang and provide the primary camera technology used in the Uyghur internment camps as “unsubstantiated and not underpinned by evidence”. Again, it was far from clear to me whether Hikvision are denying that their systems have been so deployed. The paragraph in the Committee’s report from which you quote in fact recommends the proscription of companies known to be associated with the Xinjiang atrocities, of which Hikvision is said to be one. I would be grateful if you could confirm whether your camera technology has in fact been used in the Uyghur internment camps and whether you accept that there is, at least to that extent, such an ‘association’. [emphasis added]

Sampson asked whether Hikvision accepts "that basic premise" that "crimes are being committed against the Uyghurs":

It is unclear from your letter to surveillance partners whether you accept that basic premise, namely that crimes are being committed against the Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and I would be grateful if you could clarify this at the outset. [emphasis added]

Referencing the Arent Fox investigation that Hikvision did not "knowingly or intentionally" commit human rights abuses, Sampson asked if it is thus Hikvision's position that it "had no knowledge" of its cameras in the Xinjiang camps:

Is it your position that Hikvision had no knowledge of the use(s) of its surveillance camera systems in the internment facilities? This would seem to be incongruous with your welcome assurance that Hikvision “hold our products to the industry’s highest global cybersecurity standards” and I think clarity is particularly important here. [emphasis added]

Hikvision Meeting Declined Until "Substantive Response"

Hikvision replied to Sampson on August 5 without responding to his questions but asking for "a virtual or face to face meeting" to discuss these "serious matters". But Sampson told IPVM he would "consider meeting with them once I have received a response" to his queries and would "publish the relevant correspondence on the website."

Sampson told IPVM that generally, "a healthy response to challenge" is to "open doors and invite criticism":

One of the key indicators of a healthy response to challenge, you open doors and invite criticism because that’s how you demonstrate adherence to proper corporate accountability, anything less than that starts to reveal some of things that are the [original] concern

Sampson confirmed to Business Insider that a meeting with Hikvision "will be set up after a substantive response to the letter".

UPDATE: Hikvision Responds, Commissioner Accepts Meeting

Hikvision responded to Fraser ignoring most of his questions, except for the one about whether Hikvision accepts "that basic premise" that "crimes are being committed against the Uyghurs"; Hikvision stated it is "not a competent arbiter to decide on this matter":

As a global enterprise and manufacturer, we believe Hikvision is not a competent arbiter to decide on this matter. Moreover, it is beyond our capability to make a judgement on this matter, particularly against a backdrop where the debate surrounding the Xinjiang issue comes with clashing geopolitical views. [emphasis added]

Hikvision falsely claimed "operational matters are not within our remit" despite its huge direct deals with Xinjiang police which mandate Hikvision operate them for decades:

It is also worth stating that we do not oversee and control our devices once they are passed to installers and we have no access to our devices without users’ authorisation. Operational matters are not within our remit. [emphasis added]

said it is "very difficult" to "publicly answer narrow pointed questions on paper" as this "leads to more questions and a kangaroo trial by media":

It is very difficult for international corporations to publicly answer narrow pointed questions on paper. This usually leads to more questions and a kangaroo trial by media. As they say, it is better to look at all the evidence and come to a verdict rather than come to a verdict and then look for evidence. [emphasis added]

Hikvision offered a meeting with Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper, the investigator Hikvision hired who determined the company did not "knowingly or intentionally" abuse human rights, to "answer your questions and so that he can present to you his findings."

The Commissioner's office told IPVM they accepted this meeting:

our office has taken up the offer from Hikvision for a meeting with Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper, the former US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes, in order to further discuss the matter. [emphasis added]

Hikvision Declines Comment

Hikvision declined to comment to IPVM for this article.

"On What Possible Basis" Can Money Be Spent On Firms Associated With Atrocities

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In an interview with IPVM, Commissioner Sampson questioned whether "public money" should be spent on companies "associated with those kind of atrocities" in Xinjiang, stating this should happen only "unless you're able to distance yourself completely":

if your organization is associated with those kind of atrocities, on what possible basis would we use public money to contribute to your profits on a business basis and on what ethical basis would we think that the citizens would like us to do so in any event? Unless you’re able to distance yourself completely and convincingly from those activities, it’s not enough to say we simply supply the products. That is simply choosing to look the other way, and I think we’ve lived through enough decades to know it’s not an acceptable position and its kind of a craven avoidance of accepting responsibility [emphasis added]

However, Sampson said he did not support a US-style 'blacklist' of companies, instead calling for a more thorough "vetting process" based on "practices, values, and CSR":

I don’t think the answer lies in producing lists of countries or entities with whom we won't do business, because as soon as you produce a list quite often you realize there's people on it who aren’t ought to be [...] it's much more about understanding the principles in advance

if you put an individual in a high place to get great value information and it's some risk or threat to somebody else, it’s well-understood that as part of due diligence, you put them through a vetting process and examine values and approaches to work and it seems to me we need to do more of that when hiring organizations.

It must be about practices, values, and CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] right from the start. [emphasis added]

"Pressing Need To Clarify" Cameras "Under Extraterritorial Ownership"

On July 16, Sampson sent a letter to UK Minister of State for Home Affairs Baroness Williams about the "pressing need to clarify" the "Risks and considerations of surveillance camera systems under extraterritorial ownership".

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Sampson wrote that "risks from cyber-attack" and the rise of "systems-as-a-service (SaaS) and system-on-a-chip (SoC)" presented "renewed challenge for assurance, audit and compliance". Sampson added that "operators and purchasers of surveillance camera systems need direction and guidance" on human rights, especially "local authorities":

Direct corporate complicity in the furtherance of human rights abuses in the specific context of surveillance camera technology has been raised directly by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (at paras 58-59). Having set out the evidence against which it reached its conclusions, the Committee goes on to make a number of recommendations which will be a matter for others. It is clear however that operators and purchasers of surveillance camera systems need direction and guidance on the specific surveillance-related issues, particularly where those operators and purchasers are local authorities; there is also a growing public interest in this aspect of surveillance policy.

Sampson wrote there is an "irresistible opportunity to address the risks and considerations above in the revised version of the Code while noting that "economic considerations" may need to be weighed against other concerns. Samspson also urged the Code not only cover local authorities and police, but at a national level as well.

Baroness Williams has yet to reply, when she does, IPVM will update.

Human Rights "Has To Be Addressed"

Commissioner Sampson told IPVM that while Surveillance Camera Code references the European Convention on Human Rights, the human rights issue "has to be addressed" and made a "requirement", particularly when gear "is being bought with public money":

[human rights] has to be addressed, it’s more about the applicability of the Code and making it a requirement rather than the specific content [of the Code]. Particularly when [equipment] is being bought with public money, if that’s the case, then those who represent the citizens should probably reflect what those concerns and expectations should be. [emphasis added]

Sampson added that "the relationship between the operator and the supplier will become more important", stating operators should "be assured of the provenance of the equipment":

I think that if you are operating a surveillance camera system, then you need to be assured of the provenance of the equipment and the provider and you will need to be assured now and in the future of the way in which its products is being used [...] The relationship between the operator and the supplier will become more important [emphasis added]

IPVM asked Commissioner Sampson about when any revisions to the Code would happen, however Sampson did not give a clear timeline.

Contrast With Predecessor

Sampson's inquiries stand in contrast to his predecessor Tony Porter, who welcomed Hikvision into the Secure By Default initiative and co-hosted a panel with Hikvision at IFSEC 2019:

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Since then, Tony Porter has joined UK facial recognition firm Corsight AI. On LinkedIn, Porter has been supportive of the new Commissioner and his proposals.

Analysis: Hikvision UK In Tight Spot

Hikvision UK is in a difficult position. As a PRC state-controlled firm with extensive Xinjiang involvement, it is unlikely it will detail its Xinjiang activities and stance on Uyghur rights abuses. However, if it ignores the Commissioner's queries, it risks drawing even further scrutiny towards itself. Whatever happens, none of it bodes well for Hikvision UK's long-term presence, which has grown in importance.

Next Steps

In the UK, 2 next steps are forthcoming. One, Hikvision could respond, in writing, as requested to the Commissioner's inquiries. However, as they have already declined to do so and it has been more than 3 weeks, this may not happen. Secondly, the UK government may respond to the Foreign Affairs Committee Report.

If or when any of these do occur, we will update accordingly.

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