FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images / Coda Story

The murky Chinese surveillance company at the center of a UK health ministry scandal

The UK’s Department of Health and around 65% of local authorities use cameras made by Hikvision, a Chinese company linked to human rights abuses in Xinjiang

The video of the former UK Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, backing into his wood-paneled office, closing the door behind him and kissing an aide, has been viewed online more than 1.5 million times in two days. Yet while Hancock has resigned, questions remain about whether the secret camera had been placed there without his knowledge.

It has also emerged that the Department of Health and Social Care building in London is fitted with cameras made by the Chinese tech giant Hikvision, which produces surveillance equipment under contracts worth $290 million with the authorities in China’s Xinjiang region, and has been linked to the mass oppression of Uyghur and other Muslim minorities. Reports from the region have shown Hikvision cameras installed in “re-education camps”, where as many as a million Uyghurs are imprisoned. 

While the company was blacklisted by the U.S. government in October 2019 to punish China for its treatment of the Uyghurs, the economic blacklist and federal ban on the products does not apply at city and state level. During the pandemic, U.S. cities, counties and schools reportedly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on temperature-scanning cameras, while an estimated 338,543 networks of Hikvision cameras watch over U.S. citizens. 

Hikvision cameras can also be found in public spaces around the UK. Around 65% of British councils currently use Hikvision technology, according to an investigation by internet research company Top10VPN, and they have purchased at least $1.3million worth of equipment over the past two years. The research company also found that the UK is the world’s fourth biggest foreign buyer of the Chinese company’s cameras, alongside those made by Dahua.

“I think there needs to be questions asked whether it is right for public funds to be allocated towards companies that have poor human rights records,” said Samuel Woodhams, a researcher at Top10VPN, who added that the cameras could also be retrofitted with additional features such as facial recognition and analytics tools. 

“I don’t want to lose sight of the human rights implications of buying this technology or the implications of increasing surveillance in public spaces with zero regulations,” he added. 

Hikvision and the Department of Health and Social Care have been approached for comment. 

Last week, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to adopt measures that would lead to a ban on Hikvision, along with other Chinese surveillance giants, including Dahua and Huawei, after they were deemed a threat to national security. 

Hikvision strongly denies claims that its equipment could be hacked or used to relay data back to Beijing. When the US government added it to a sanctions list in October 2019, the company said it “respects human rights and takes our responsibility to protect people in the U.S. and the world seriously.”

The UK government is now under pressure to implement an urgent Whitehall security review, and the Department of Health has confirmed it’s conducting an internal investigation into how the video of the former Health Secretary was leaked. 

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Show your support for journalism that stays on the story by becoming a member today. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S. non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.

Support Coda