Silkie Carlo: Chinese CCTV is watching you
Florence Read: Hello, and welcome to UnHerd. I'm Florence Read. There are six million security cameras in use in the UK, one for every 11 people, and the majority are Chinese surveillance systems. London, where we are right now, is the most surveilled city outside of China, and has more cameras per person than Beijing. So it has to be asked, are we being watched? That is one claim made by a new report on Chinese-run CCTV. I wanted to find out if it's as sinister as it seems.
Silkie Carlo, one of the authors of the report, and the director of Big Brother Watch, joins me now to dig a little deeper. Hi Silkie. Silkie Carlo: Hello.
Florence Read: So let's start with a brief overview of your findings. What does this report say and why do you think it's so important? Silkie Carlo: We found that the majority of public authorities are buying surveillance cameras from Chinese state-owned companies, and these are often in very sensitive places, we've even seen them in government departments. This raises really serious security questions, privacy risks, but also some of the most pressing human rights risks of our time. Florence Read: So there's two distinct parts of the report: there is the issue of privacy with the potential leaks to the Chinese government of data collected on these security systems, and then the other part of it seems to be the ethical question around how these surveillance systems are being used inside China itself. So let's start with that first half, the privacy question, I suppose that's the kind of headline news from this. Is there a chance that the Chinese
government is accessing information or even footage from cameras in the UK Government? Silkie Carlo: That is a distinct possibility. There are very well-documented security risks with in particular HikVision cameras that are used widely across the UK, even in government departments. And because of the extent of the coverage of these cameras across our country, meaning that millions of people are being captured every single day, every single minute most likely, we are talking about a security risk over an eye-watering amount of data. One investigation in particular, found that a HikVision camera was sending unauthorised signals back to a server in China. Now, if you consider what it could mean, if lots of HikVision cameras were sending footage back to an unauthorised place – let's say the CCP in China – it could be one of the most large-scale hostile surveillance risks that the country faces, and yet we're struggling to get politicians to sit up and listen. It's a really
serious privacy threat for people in the UK, and it's important to say that part of what led us on to this research is that so often when people see a CCTV camera lens, they have this 1990s conception of CCTV that it's passively recording, if something happens to them police can go back and get some footage. Actually nowadays, and in particular with the Chinese-made surveillance cameras, they come with a lot of advanced capabilities baked in as standard, AI and algorithm-powered surveillance tools and advanced analytics. Florence Read: So this is where we go from a closed-circuit system, which is maybe what we're all used to seeing in The Wire or other cop shows of the early Noughties, where you see police looking at a system in a shop that has a recorded track that is kept on an internal system only and is not on some sort of internet server. Is that correct, the distinction we should be making? Silkie Carlo: That's right. These are often IP cameras, they are internet connected, and they are also connected to software that conducts advanced analytics. And that can be –
during the pandemic, we saw HikVision really pushing thermal scanning, but also behavioural analytics, anomaly detection – so if someone's behaving unusually in a space –object detection and object tracking, face detection, vehicle recognition, person recognition, facial recognition. These are really intrusive, advanced analytics. They are not only watching you, they are analysing you, and that changes the game significantly. In China, we know that the state conducts mass-scale facial recognition, for example, and behavioural analytics, which means that each person just by walking around in public space, can have a really advanced intelligence file on them just sitting in a database somewhere waiting to be tapped into. Florence Read: And if they do tap into this file, what would they be using it for? This is where someone like me I suppose who might be be tracked in my everyday life via CCTV would never really think about how it might be used. How is the CCP
using this data? Silkie Carlo: This brings us to the human rights issues with HikVision and technology-enabled human rights abuses, because basically HikVision surveillance cameras act as AI prison guards in concentration camps where ethnic minorities, predominately Uyghurs, are being detained. And they have offered features like, for example, Uyghur alerts. So these cameras are doing an ethnicity analysis on passers-by, and if they see a Uyghur, they can alert someone in law enforcement who can then take action. But also, when you're tracking people all day, every day, if somebody becomes a person of interest – let's say somebody is sharing a petition in China, who knows, we're getting close to a situation like that here – they become a person of political interest. When you're using a technology like facial recognition, you can then search through masses and masses of footage and find every time that person has been anywhere and who they were with, at what times. So you very
quickly, can have kind of retrospective detailed intelligence on an individual. So for example, if somebody becomes a person of interest to state authorities, for example, let's say somebody in China's shares a petition against the state. Using a technology like facial recognition and given the sheer amount of CCTV or surveillance camera coverage, you can very quickly using that person's face, find footage of them over a massive period of time. You can run a search with that face and find where else they've been and who they've been with, where, when, for how long and very, very quickly put together an intelligence file on someone. Basically, facial recognition treats our faces like a barcode. You don't even
need a microchip. You can track someone and find where someone has been at all times just using their face. And we've seen this technology also creeping into the UK. In fact, even Co-op
supermarkets in the south east are using HikVision cameras and facial recognition to spy on their shoppers. Florence Read: So if I'm being spied on in in a Co-op, what sort of information can they possibly be gathering on me that is of any use to them, and if that footage were to be stolen off a server, what use would it be to anyone? Silkie Carlo: They're using it to compile a blacklist of people that they don't want in their stores, and they're people that they, or their security guards, believe have been involved in theft. But they're not people who have convictions, or who have necessarily even been reported to police, or are suspected in any formal sense. They're people that security
guards have chosen to put on a blacklist that can then be shared across the region. And also the company that they're working with, Facewatch, shares that information with other retailers, or can share that information with other retailers, too, so that you can be blacklisted from loads of supermarkets if other supermarkets buy into it or other shops. Risks with this are, of course, that we're entering into a kind of pre-crime territory, where you can be actually an innocent person, wrongly suspected, and then suddenly find that with AI Chinese-made surveillance cameras, you can't even go and do a food shop anymore, and you get an alert when you walk into a shop. I think that is just really the definition of dystopian, and disgraceful, especially for a company that brands itself as as ethical.
Florence Read: Have we laid the groundwork a bit for this during the COVID years? Silkie Carlo: The COVID pandemic led to a huge expansion of surveillance, whether it was drones watching people going rambling in the hills, or phone tracking, all sorts of things. HikVision took the opportunity, as they saw it, of the pandemic to start pushing thermal screening, and so that was used in Heathrow Airport for a while. And here's the thing, it comes with these add-ons, as I think you were suggesting, so they started using thermal screening, with facial recognition, and behavioural analytics, and object detection and clothing analytics, age, gender – once you open the door to algorithmic analytics, it then becomes a kind of snowball effect, like why not. It becomes add-ons, and it piles up into these kind of AI watchmen that are on the corners of buildings and inside buildings, not only watching and recording what we do, but analysing and alerting.
Florence Read: You're painting quite a dystopian picture here, Silkie. I'm getting more scared by the second about our future. So let's take an alternative perspective, perhaps, and just look at the basic kind of economy of this. We know that China produces a huge amount of technology. It's inevitable, I suppose, that surveillance technology is going to be an element of that. Silkie Carlo: China has deliberately manipulated markets to offer these products cheap. The HikVision cameras are some of the cheapest on the market, as well as being highly advanced. And there's a reason for that. China is an extremely
dangerous, hostile state that has an interest in collecting vast amounts of data on its own population, and I think others, and we should be sceptical of the fact that we have Chinese state-owned companies selling surveillance cameras to the rest of the world, and covering most of certainly our country, and watching us at all times. Of course, we should be really suspicious about that. Florence Read: Let me just push back slightly, because I think one of the things here that I suppose people might be quite sceptical about is the intent behind the sale of of these systems to the UK. I think the picture you paint there is a very sinister one. It suggests that there is genuine mal-intent on the part of the Chinese to sell this technology cheap so that they can gather data – illegally, legally, whatever – to surveil people in the UK. To many that will sound like it
borders on a conspiracy. Can you explain a little more about why you really think that that is truly happening? Silkie Carlo: I can't say that with certainty. What I can say is they've deliberately manipulated the market to sell their products cheap. There are economic reasons that they might want to do that. But they are also the world's leading
surveillance state. So it's certainly doesn't involve any speculation to say that this is a country that is highly interested in surveilling people and is also successfully doing it and is dominating UK surveillance at this very moment. In the same way that the security risks with Huawei were acknowledged, finally, and some sensible decisions were made there, I think we need to be on the brink of a real reckoning about surveillance camera coverage, because of course there are security risks. They've been documented, and I
think the fact that some of those security risks did expose unauthorised signals going back to servers in China at the very least raises real questions. And no doubt, I'm a human rights campaigner, there are questions here for our security services to be answering, and I'm quite sure that they will be looking into them. But as we saw with Huawei, sometimes this moves too slowly. And now the Health Department has removed HikVision cameras, or has committed to not buy any more HikVision cameras, I do sense that hopefully our report is part of a gathering of pace and political pressure saying that this is something that we really need to look at. Florence Read: So when we talk about China as well in this context, we're also in the midst of the invasion of Ukraine, and the current conflicts going on there in which Russia and China have created a kind of unlikely partnership, and I suppose there are major questions here about how much we push or pull China at this moment in time.
Silkie Carlo: I think on the one hand, the fact that Britain has shown that we can take very decisive action against a hostile state when we need to – including action that involves adverse economic repercussions – on the one hand, that actually opens the door for campaigners who say: we might also want to have a look at China, actually, we might want to have a look at Saudi Arabia too and some other human rights-abusing countries that we have very close relationships with. But on the other hand, as I think you're getting at, it does also mean – it could mean – that some politicians feel that there's limited capacity for how much action you can take against some human rights-abusing foreign states. And for example, the UK has had a very close relationship with Saudi Arabia, despite their appalling actions, and other states. I distinctly remember when we rolled the red carpet out for Xi Jinping, and I think he had dinner with the Queen and all sorts. I think we've shown that we have an ability to act really robustly when we need to, but also that there has been a great deal of hypocrisy. But the the issue of banning HikVision is not just
about morals on the international stage, it's also about domestic security and the protection of citizens here because of the security risks that we've outlined. And that should be taken really seriously too. The rest of the world is turning their back on Chinese surveillance companies. The US has banned Hikvision now. And whilst the rest of the world are turning their backs on these companies, Britain seems to be welcoming them with open arms, and funnelling millions of pounds of taxpayers money which is going to companies that are partly owned by the Chinese state, which means that it's also going towards their genocidal programme. And I can't imagine a more serious and pressing human rights issue than that.
Florence Read: So let's just look ahead then towards the alternative. If other countries are giving up HikVision and other Chinese-owned security systems, what is the alternative, then Silkie? Because if we take the power to surveil out of the hands of private companies and hand it over to the government, then how are we any better than the CCP? Silkie Carlo: What this report really shows is that we need a full independent national review of surveillance in Britain. We have become a surveillance state. We've slept-walked into
it. The fact that we are one of the most watched cities in the world, up there in the rankings with China, is shameful in what should be one of Europe's leading democracies. We've just got it completely wrong on surveillance and on privacy and I think we do need a full review to look at the scale of CCTV coverage and surveillance camera coverage, question when it's really needed, question what's done with it, how often does it actually lead to effective law enforcement. And also look
behind the lens. Because I think a lot of people watching this won't actually know that quite often surveillance cameras are not just recording them, they're actually analysing them. And we're now on the brink of facial recognition which can be used to track you, can be used to identify you, misidentify you.
So the implications of the security architecture that's been built around this country are really, really serious. So that's the first thing, we need to actually look at how and why the UK does surveillance cameras in the way that we do. The second thing is that at the moment, the Procurement Bill is going through Parliament, which is a shake-up of the way that public authorities contract with private companies, and it's the perfect opportunity to think more carefully about how we deal with China, in particular in relation to surveillance, where rights are at risk here as well, of course, overseas. And we're suggesting that one of the reasons that a company should be able to be banned in the UK is if they have links to serious human rights abuses. This seems like a no-brainer to me; of course public authorities should be able to reject dealings with companies if they find that those companies are, for example, involved in genocide. Florence Read: When I walk out of the studio now into the streets of London, more surveilled than if I was in Beijing, what can I possibly do to resist this constant surveillance? Is there anything that an average citizen can do to actually escape this life, or do I need to go and live like a hermit in the middle of the woods? Or are there CCTV cameras in woods now – there probably are.
Silkie Carlo: We have to fight for strategic change, and wide-scale change on this. We have to give a voice in Britain to people that do want to live differently without having to escape to the woods, as nice as that would be. Because there is nothing you can do. There is nothing you can do. One of the things as well as all of the expansion of surveillance that the pandemic opened up to, is that you can also now wear a mask without it looking strange. But even facial recognition
cameras have learnt or are being trained to overcome masks and still identify people just through their eyes and the tops of their faces. There's very little that an individual can do other than becoming part of a community that gives a voice to people that want to live in a more liberal and more free society. Florence Read: A very last question for you Silkie. How does this surveillance, Chinese or not, affect the way we live our lives? I suppose we were talking at the beginning there about TV shows where you see a policeman looking at a closed-circuit security camera. The way we live now is very
different to that. So how do you feel that things have changed? Silkie Carlo: One thing we know for sure is that CCTV doesn't reduce crime. You only have to look at the crime rates in London to see that. One of the most surveilled cities in the world, and it has no impact on serious crime. But what it does
do, and what living in a surveillance society does, is it makes us all less free, and it makes us internally less free. People change their behaviours when they're being watched, and this isn't a conscious process at all. It's a subconscious process, where people modify behaviours when they are aware that they are being watched. Actually, China is the blueprint for this. You only have to look at the amount of self-censorship in Chinese society, and self-moderation and self-control to see that change in behaviour. And that's why I care about privacy so much. Because of course, you can campaign and
fight for all kinds of external freedoms – and we do – that have material impact about prison sentencing, fair trials, and all these things you can touch and see and feel. With privacy, it's really about the free growth of your personality, creativity and thoughts and expression. And when you don't have privacy, and when you are constantly watched, that is really dulled and deadened. And we've become a very monolithic
society and homogenous society and I think that's something that we really don't want to have. It's absolutely integral for freedom that we have less surveillance, more targeted surveillance where it's needed, but that we don't become a surveillance state. Florence Read: A slightly bleak conclusion there, but thank you so much Silkie for your time.
Silkie Carlo: Thank you. Florence Read: That was Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch, and an editor of a new report on Chinese-owned CCTV systems. A slightly sinister summary there of the current situation in the UK when it comes to surveillance. But I think some green shoots, even if it does mean hiding in the woods, to how we can all be slightly less-surveilled in the future. Thanks to Silkie for coming on, and thanks to you for watching. This was UnHerd.