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Surveillance Camera Commissioner puts trust at centre of campaign to block Chinese cameras

The Biometrics & Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Fraser Sampson, has recently published two blogs as part of his ongoing campaign to raise ethical objections to the procurement of CCTV equipment from certain Chinese manufacturers, placing trust at the centre of his argument.

In the first blog, the Commissioner wrote about his plans to attend an event organised by Big Brother Watch to launch a new report, Who’s Watching You? The dominance of Chinese state-owned surveillance in the UK.

In the blog, he noted that most biometric surveillance technology is privately owned and that public bodies who are adopting this technology must be able to trust their technology partners. He takes particular issue with a couple of Chinese manufacturers, but he has said in the past that it applies to technology companies from around the world.

He wrote: “If the people we trust can’t trust these companies, we have no business giving them public money and no defence to the obvious risks we’re creating by doing so."

And he added: "For those public bodies that have entered into surveillance contracts with these companies I’m very interested to understand how they conducted their due diligence and on what evidence they believe they have created a partnership that can be trusted by the communities they serve.”

While there are grounds to agree with the sentiment of his statements, it should be noted that public bodies perform due diligence already, but there are a number of complications in doing what Fraser Sampson asks for:

  1. Customers don’t always deal directly with the camera supplier as they can be provided as part of an upgrade project installation or service contract, and the products being supplied may be rebadged or simply contain components from these companies. The upshot is that it is difficult to separate out the components of a project, or indeed an individual device, that may cause ethical concerns.

  2. Ethical issues, at least to the depth that he advocates, are seldom included in current procurement policy and procedures. It’s also not clear whether local authorities and police would be allowed to consider these issues in procurement, but that may change as part of the government’s forthcoming Procurement Bill.

  3. In the absence of a statement from central government, it’s not always clear to local authorities how or why they should effectively ban a country’s products, especially when the same products are still widely used by some central government departments.

  4. Under current procurement rules, tenders need to be evaluated on the basis of various criteria, including economic advantage, but again, that might change somewhat under the new Procurement Bill.

There are clearly concerns and risks – in terms of ethics, technical compatibility, national security, politics and finances – in using CCTV equipment from a range of companies which operate under repressive regimes, but it’s not clear to the CCTV User Group why the burden for resolving that should fall on local authorities and police while others do nothing.

The final takeaway from Fraser Sampson's letter is that he plans to conduct

a compliance survey of police and local authorities which will include which suppliers end users are using, with a particular focus on Chinese government (and other state actor) connected manufacturers. So watch out for that survey to land in your inbox.


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