British police forces are “shot through” with Chinese cameras, drones and other surveillance equipment, a watchdog has warned.
Biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner Fraser Sampson said the findings of a survey carried out by his office (the OBSCC) also suggested bodies using the equipment were “generally aware that there are security and ethical concerns about the companies supplying their kit”.
The findings come amid growing concerns about the threat of Chinese spy balloons which prompted the UK to review its security measures after the US shot down four objects flying in its airspace this month. Washington declared one of them to be Chinese spyware.
The questionnaire, sent out in June last year, asked all 43 police forces in England and Wales – as well as the British Transport Police, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, Ministry of Defence, and the National Crime Agency (NCA), about their use and governance of CCTV and other surveillance cameras including on drones and helicopters, body-worn video and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR).
According to the watchdog, several of the respondents said their camera systems use equipment which there had been security or ethical concerns about – including companies Dahua, Hikvision, Honeywell, Huawei and Nuuo.
Mr Sampson said: “It is abundantly clear from this detailed analysis of the survey results that the police estate in the UK is shot through with Chinese surveillance cameras. It is also clear that the forces deploying this equipment are generally aware that there are security and ethical concerns about the companies that supply their kit.
“There has been a lot in the news in recent days about how concerned we should be about Chinese spy balloons 60,000 feet up in the sky. I do not understand why we are not at least as concerned about the Chinese cameras six feet about our head in the street and elsewhere …
“Myself and others have been saying for some time that we should, both for security and ethical reasons, really be asking ourselves whether it is ever appropriate for public bodies to use equipment made by companies with such serious questions hanging over them.”
Of the 47 bodies and forces contacted, 39 responded. City of London, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Gwent, Merseyside, South Yorkshire and Thames Valley police forces and the NCA did not take part in the survey, which the OBSCC said was “disappointing”.
Some 23 of the 31 respondents which said they operate cameras on drones said they were aware of “security or ethical concerns” about the Chinese manufacturer DJI, the findings indicate.
At least 18 said their external camera systems use equipment about which there had security or ethical concerns. While at least 24 gave the same response when asked about internal camera systems.
At least 11 respondents provided this answer when asked about their ANPR systems. There were also at least two which said they used cameras made by Hikvision for body worn video.
A National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) spokesman said: “Following government guidance where governmental departments have been instructed to cease the deployment of such equipment around sensitive sites, UK Policing will conduct necessary reviews to ensure national security standards are met.
“Model contractual terms and conditions are widely used across policing, and these include specific provision for equality, diversity and human rights. These are imposed on contracted suppliers and would be used to enforce any breach of contract.”
More than two thirds of drones operated by police forces in the UK are made by a Chinese firm that is blacklisted in the US, The Telegraph reported.
UK police data reportedly showed at least 230 of the 337 drones operated by 37 police forces are supplied by DJI, according to data obtained under freedom of information laws. Some forces refused to reveal the companies providing their drones.
A Home Office source told the newspaper on Tuesday that Home Secretary Suella Braverman had “concerns” about the use of Chinese technology in the UK and would want police to make sure all their data is “secure and not vulnerable to any interference by a foreign state”.
“Police take all possible steps to protect and keep secure the data obtained by using drones. Forces comply with both the surveillance camera code of practice and the Information Commissioner’s code of practice,” the NPCC added.
A Hikvision spokesman said: “It is categorically false to represent Hikvision as a threat to national security. No respected technical institution or assessment has come to this conclusion.
“As a manufacturer, Hikvision does not store end-users’ video data, does not offer cloud storage in the UK and therefore cannot transmit data from end-users to third parties. Hikvision cameras are compliant with the applicable UK laws and regulations and are subject to strict security requirements.”
The company welcomed the NPCC review and is “committed to upholding the highest standards and respect for human rights”, the spokesman added.