Big Brother Watch is a UK organisation that campaigns to defend civil liberties and privacy. As such, they keep a close eye on the ‘surveillance state’: the degree to which authorities are monitoring citizens, and the ever-more sophisticated technology that enables them to do so.
They have recently been investigating the use of Chinese-manufactured CCTV cameras in the UK, submitting Freedom of Information (FOI) requests via WhatDoTheyKnow Pro as one part of their research.
In doing so they’ve uncovered the full extent to which this technology has permeated our schools and colleges, local and central government and beyond. Linked with information about both the capabilities of the tech, and the ways in which these companies support the human rights violations of the Chinese state, Big Brother Watch’s recent report makes for disturbing reading.
The campaign has caught the attention of government, and driven a change in policy over their internal usage of cameras. Hearing of this positive outcome, we were keen to talk to Big Brother Watch and find out more about their use of FOI, and their Head of Research & Investigations Jake Hurfurt filled us in.
What can they see?
Big Brother Watch opposes the rise of surveillance in this country, pointing out that the UK is one of the most surveilled countries in the world with an estimated 6 million CCTV cameras across the nation.
As a society we may have become more accustomed to CCTV in public areas, but most people aren’t aware of recent rapid advances in surveillance functionality — such as facial, gender and even race recognition. And until there is widespread understanding of exactly what these cameras can do, there can’t be informed consent.
Because of its affordability, Hikvision is the most common provider of CCTV equipment in this country, with Dahua in second place. Both companies are known to supply surveillance equipment that has been used to target ethnic Uyghur minorities in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.
Finally, Hikvision software has known vulnerabilities that could be exploited by hackers — and in countries like the US and Italy, breaches have been noted where cameras were found to be ‘communicating with China’.
That’s the background: so what prompted Big Brother Watch’s investigation?
Taking a closer look
Jake says, “We’d become aware of Hikvision’s dominance of the UK market. We had also seen the US and Australia move to restrict Hikvision and Dahua, given their links to the atrocities in Xinjiang and their cybersecurity flaws, and were concerned of the risks this posed to privacy and civil liberties in the UK, so decided to dig deeper.”
And, given the methods by which other countries had brought about change in this area, they knew they’d need to be looking at public authorities. That meant that FOI, which gives everyone the right to ask public bodies for the information they hold, was an obvious choice:
“From the start the project was designed as a public-sector focused investigation. We could see that successful restrictions on state-owned firms in other countries had originated in the public sector. It was clear from the beginning that we would ask questions using FOI.”
As Big Brother Watch’s report states, “Over 5 months, [we] submitted more than 4,500 Freedom of Information requests to a range of public bodies to establish where Hikvision and Dahua equipment is in use and what advanced capabilities this equipment has. Some subsequent focused requests were submitted to public bodies who confirmed they do use Hikvision cameras.
“The public bodies included all secondary schools and FE colleges in England, all UK universities, police forces, NHS Trusts, all Oxbridge Colleges, all central government departments, the House of Commons, the three devolved administrations and the Greater London Assembly.”
A survey of surveillance
Our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service is designed for people making large scale investigative FOI requests: it makes it simpler to send FOI requests to specific types of authority in a single batch, and keeps all correspondence private until you are ready to go public.
Jake says, “We used WhatDoTheyKnow Pro to send an initial wave of requests to police forces, government departments and the largest local authorities in the country, which acted as a scoping exercise to see how widespread Hikvision & Dahua are from a selection of public bodies.
“Batch requesting and WhatDoTheyKnow’s built-in reminders of when it’s time to chase up a response have been useful. It was also useful in sending requests to public bodies who are hard to contact, as the contact address database is amazing.
“The other helpful feature was the ability to look across requests others have made in the past, to compare responses and see what kind of wording worked and which did not – it’s something I always do when conducting large FOI projects as I can learn from other’s experience in the kind of questions that are successful, or start by knowing more than I would have done otherwise.”
You can read Big Brother Watch’s full report for all the details, but their investigation revealed that three out of five schools, 60% of hospitals, 31% of police forces, 53% of universities, and 73% of councils use Hikvision and Dahua CCTV cameras, representing, in total, 60.8% of our public bodies.
Once the full extent of their usage had been quantified, it was time to get the word out to the people capable of bringing about change — the UK’s elected representatives.
Jake says, “We sent the report to MPs and held an event in Parliament to complement the launch of the report, and we had a good reception.
“Around publication we also got dozens of Parliamentarians to back a pledge to ban Hikvision, and working alongside other NGOs we have been heavily involved in advocacy around a number of bills to push for this. Big Brother Watch does a lot of advocacy in Parliament and the report has supported these efforts.”
Subsequently, with Oliver Dowden describing them as “current and future possible security risks”, the Chinese cameras were banned from being installed in or on government buildings.
The government may have cracked down on their own use of these cameras, but that still leaves thousands of institutions and private companies who may not even be aware of the capabilities or implications of the cameras they’ve installed.
Big Brother Watch are pressing for further action and you can find their campaign page here. If you are concerned, you can add your name to a petition to request that Parliament pass a law to ban this type of CCTV; and you can add sightings of the distinctive cameras to a collaborative Google map.
Thanks very much to Jake for filling us in on the details of how WhatDoTheyKnow played a part in Big Brother Watch’s wider investigation.
You might also be interested to read our 2019 post on Privacy International’s investigation into police use of facial recognition.