Police in China can track protests by enabling ‘alarms’ on Hikvision software

Chinese police can set up “alarms” for various protest activities using a software platform provided by Hikvision, a major Chinese camera and surveillance manufacturer, the Guardian has learned. Descriptions of protest activity listed among the “alarms” include “gathering crowds to disrupt order in public places”, “unlawful assembly, procession, demonstration” and threats to “petition”.

These activities are listed alongside offenses such as “gambling” or disruptive events such as “fire hazard” in technical documents available on Hikvision’s website and flagged to the Guardian by surveillance research firm IPVM, or Internet Protocol Video Market. The company’s website also included alarms for “religion” and “Falun Gong” – a spiritual movement banned in China and categorized as a cult by the government – until IPVM contacted the company.

The findings come a month after mass protests against the country’s zero-Covid policies erupted across China. Though the demonstrations resulted in the government easing restrictions, many protesters later received calls from police.

The US government has long had its sights set on Hikvision. The company was placed on a commerce department blacklist that restricts the use of federal funds to purchase equipment manufactured by the firm as well as US exports to the surveillance firm for its complicity in human rights violations associated with China’s mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.

In November, the Federal Communications Commission also introduced new rules that prohibited imports and sales of future Hikvision communications equipment in the US.

While Hikvision is best known for its camera equipment, the company has joined other players in developing and providing centralized platforms for police and other law enforcement to maintain, manage, analyze and respond to information collected through the many cameras set up across China. Hikvision pitches its cloud platform, called Infovision IoT, as a means to “provide intelligent public security decision-making and services” for police in order to alleviate “uneven allocation of resources, heavy workload, inability to share data”, according to the company’s website.

The technical document available on the Hikvision website does not give many details about exactly how these alarms work but describes a long list of events or activities under “types” of alarms which include “infringement of property rights”, “stealing”, “trafficking of women and children” and pornography. The document also describes “alarm methods” that include “discovery on duty”, “equipment alarm” and a call to the police.

At least nine alarm types are protest-related, according to a translation of the Hikvision technical guide: “gathering crowds to attack state organs”, “gathering crowds to disrupt the order of the unit”, “gathering crowds to disrupt order in public places”, “gathering crowds to disrupt traffic order”, “gathering crowds to disrupt order on public transport”, “gathering crowds obstructing the normal running of vehicles”, “crowd looting”, “unlawful assembly, procession, demonstration” and a “threat to petition”.

A guard stands near a Hikvision camera at a prison entrance in Hong Kong. Photograph: Lam Yik/Reuters

Police who are on duty, for example, will be able to report events or incidents as a “503” event – the code that corresponds with “gathering crowds to disrupt order in public places” – which could then trigger an alarm in the system for the rest of the police department, according to Charles Rollet, an IPVM researcher. That would also be the case for the “Falun Gong” alarm.

“It raises significant freedom of assembly and freedom of religion concerns,” Rollet said. “Technically those two rights are in the People’s Republic of China constitution, but in reality, the government cracks down very hard on those liberties. So I am concerned about how technology can facilitate the tracking of repressed groups.”

The “Falun Gong” and “religion” alarm were removed from the website with no explanation after IPVM contacted the company.

The technical document also illustrates the sheer breadth of data on individuals the company enables its customers to track. Various personal attributes are listed as part of a “personnel dictionary” including political status, religion and ethnicity as well as physical descriptions such as whether someone has long or short hair or wears glasses, the color of their coats, their age range and whether they smile.

The company has previously come under fire for developing the capabilities to detect Uyghurs and other minorities. In 2018, it won a contract to install facial recognition systems at the entrance of 967 mosques as well as re-education camps where Uyghurs and many members of other ethnic minorities have been detained. These are just a small part of the Chinese government’s larger campaign to use technology to monitor and track members of religious and other minority groups. The United Nations said in a report that China’s actions against Uyghurs may be considered “crimes against humanity”.

Hikvision has disputed all reports of enabling the Chinese government to target Uyghurs.

Hikvision declined to comment but has previously told the Guardian: “In 2018, a separate recognition function produced by Hikvision, which was not focused on any single ethnic group, was removed through a firmware update and is no longer available, as reported by The New York Times in 2019.

“Hikvision has strictly followed all applicable laws and regulations in the UK and all countries where we operate to ensure complete compliance.

“Hikvision has never knowingly or intentionally committed human rights abuses itself or acted in wilful disregard and will never do so in the future.”

But Senator Marco Rubio has called for sanctions on the company as well as other firms for their role in the repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority and said in a statement that he would continue to push that bill forward in the new year.

“Hikvision’s technology plays a central role enabling the Chinese Communist Party’s disgusting human rights abuses and genocide, including against groups such as the Falun Gong and the Uyghurs,” Rubio said in an emailed statement.