When The Wall Street Journal contacted Hikvision for comment recently, “the report was taken down from Hikvision’s website for several days this month,” according to the Journal. A Hikvision spokesman told the Journal, “Not now, and not ever, has Hikvision conducted research and development work for Chinese military applications.” As should be clear from the above, that’s a lie. And, the company is deeply linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and state apparatus, which is inextricably networked with its military.
Some Hikvision cameras can see through fog and pollution, and have night vision, heat map, artificial intelligence, and license-, facial-, and behavior-recognition technologies. Some are explosion-proof, mounted on drones or the undercarriages of vehicles for their surveillance, or alert authorities to large crowds or protests. One is equipped with microphones to automatically zero in on noise in its vicinity.
The Department of Homeland Security flagged Hikvision for a cybersecurity loophole in 2017 that made approximately 200 camera models easily accessible to hackers. Up to tens of millions were shipped, according to an estimate by IPVM.
Not only do Hikvision cameras surveil the United States and its allies, but the company hires Americans and Canadians for its research and development. Two such offices opened in Montreal and Silicon Valley in 2017. Local politicians trying to increase jobs in their communities probably didn’t complain much when Hikvision dangled plans to hire 800 workers in North America by 2022. We sure do sell ourselves cheap.
While the U.S. General Services Administration removed Hikvision from its $66 billion in procurement offerings to the U.S. government in 2017, and a U.S. military base removed Hikvision cameras from a Missouri military base recently, it’s unclear whether or not the cameras continue in other sensitive locations.
Hikvision’s largest shareholder is Hong Kong billionaire Gong Hongjia, and some of its executives are Communist Party members whom CETC, Hikvision’s main state-owned shareholder, also employs. Gong provided capital for Hikvision’s founding, along with a government-backed lab that initially took a 51 percent controlling share. The company gets huge Chinese government contracts to surveil cities and events, including $1.2 billion worth of “safe city” contracts in Chongqing, population 31 million. Do you feel safer as a result? I don’t.
The U.S. Defense Department no longer purchases from Hikvision and designated the company on its military list, preventing Americans from investing in its securities. A 2018 law bars the U.S. government from purchasing goods and services from the company, and the Commerce Department blacklisted Hikvision and other Chinese AI companies in 2019. But as Hikvision products continue to creep into our homes and businesses through rebranding, these reforms don’t go far enough.
The 18th-century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who designed a “panopticon” in which a single guard could surveil an entire prison ranged in a circle around him, would have recognized present-day China as the dystopian development of his prison reform, applied to those outside the prison walls. China today is that reverse panopticon, in which the intellectual prison of the CCP surveils the world.
If Hikvision can lie about its ties to the Chinese military, other conglomerates from China can, too. Huawei, Xiaomi, TikTok, Zoom, Alibaba, and State Grid are all China-linked technology companies that branch into our homes, businesses, and even government offices. As they can rebrand their products and components for sale in our public and private spaces, consumers and government procurement experts aren’t always aware that with their uninformed consumer choices, they may be opening the door to China’s police state.
That should change, with mandated warning labels on all technology products that include components or software from China. The U.S. and allied governments must take a tougher stand against China’s Big Tech to ensure our privacy, cybersecurity, and the future of democracy.