China’s home-grown subsidiary security firm- Hikvision, has been facing severe espionage allegation across different countries. The company’s surveillance technology has in the recent years come under serious criticism for its security leniency as well as for its failure in upholding secure networks for international clients.
These allegations had prompted the U.K government to enforce a blanket ban on Chinese cameras in governmental buildings, a move it claimed was enforced to safeguard national security interests. Months earlier a dozen Member of Parliaments from U.K had called for an absolute ban on the sale and use of security camera made by Hikvision and Dahua, both of which are partly owned by the Chinese government. The call was in call tune with severe privacy fears fuelled by Hikvision suspicious activities in aiding human rights abuses for the Chinese Communist Party.
These action however are not actions in isolation, they come at a time when the U.S has already warned nations around the world that Chinese tech firms posed significant security threats, one which if not prevented, can prove to be detrimental to their vital national security interests. Hikvision had been placed on U. S’s trading blacklist in 2019 after the Commerce department claimed that the company in question had played a collusive hand in Human Right abuses as well as had implemented China’s repressive campaigns against ethnic minority communities domestically.
Furthermore, in order to circumvent Hikvision’s espionage attempts, erstwhile U.S president Donald Trump had signed an executive order banning American companies and individuals from investing in the firm due to its links with the Chinese military. Moreover, during the same time a provision was included in the National Defence Authorization Act prohibiting federal agencies from indulging in video surveillance contracts with Hikvision.
A furthered attempt to prevent the Chinese firm from sabotaging vital cybersecurity infrastructure, the Federal Accusation Regulation was put in effect mandating security firms to completely remove any security equipment as well as financial links across its supply chain with Hikvision if it intended to qualify for government contracts. More so, these allegations even led to Hikvision resigning from the Security Industry Association (SIA), the largest trade organization of surveillance providers, mostly for being accused of working with the Chinese Army on research to improve the lethality of missiles.
According to recent reports, Hikvision has been advertising ethnic recognition features as part of its new batch of updated security updates. This has subsequently led many to question whether if Chinese firms should be permitted to function within domestic market at all. Its association with the CCP in prosecuting ethnic minorities in China has provoked many lawmakers to reassess their associations with the Chinese firms that has now come to be known for its subversive nature.
In 2018, a separate recognition function produced by Hikvision, was removed through a firmware update when it came under scrutiny for its suspicious activities. More recently, security researchers unveiled and investigated that some 80,000 of Hikvision’s cameras were vulnerable to specific injection commands. These injection commands were easily exploitable and could be used by actors that intended to cause security breaches within vital cyber infrastructures. Cybersecurity research firm CYFIRMA released a report in 2021, indicating how both governmental agencies as well as hacking groups were still exploiting vulnerabilities in the firm’s software. The report stated that specifically in the Russian forums, they had observed leaked credentials of Hikvision camera products up for sale at a minimal price. The report also stated that such vulnerabilities could grant hackers leverage to gain access to devices and products to further exploit as well as potentially carve the path for attacks on vital sites with Hikvision equipment installed.
Nearly 11,000 vulnerable Hikvision camera products are located the U.S. and more than 7,300 in Vietnam. The U.K., Ukraine, Thailand, South Africa, France, the Netherlands and Romania also seemed to have topped the list of the countries with vulnerable Hikvision cameras.
The company’s products have been installed across sensitive sites including police surveillance systems in more than 190 countries around the world. Its global expansion has come at the behest of the Chinese state subsidies that it has received while also managing to products at cheap prices. The CCP has granted subsidies amounting to around $694 million to Hikvision in the recent years. This has invariably enabled Chinese firms to sell their equipment at 30% lesser rates than their competitors causing a severe disruption in the market as well. These factors combined altogether have made Hikvision the largest manufacturer of video surveillance equipment in the world.
Currently there is talks within the Washington to add Hikvision to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) List, a designation until now only reserved for companies from like North Korea or Iran. SDN designation will potentially ban anyone anywhere in the world from doing business with Hikvision, an embargo much stricter than the one Huawei is undergoing. The prospects are quite telling of the serious security implication Hikvision poses against national security interests.
It would perhaps be of greater national interest if countries around the world realize that China is strengthening its cyber-warfare infantry through such firms. The fact that such companies have breached into sensitive sites in countries around the world, it must be taken into account that espionage activities can seriously jeopardize state infrastructure, while assessing China’s attempted grab as a hegemon in the world order. The cybersecurity space in the coming years will define how the global order is constructed in the future and China perhaps is on a path of strong-arming countries through intimidation of cyber-ware attacks if then refuse to permit a subversive Chinese rise in the global arena.