NZ Govt uses Chinese cameras banned in US

Hikvision cameras watch over two reception areas of Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment offices. Photo: Farah Hancock
Hikvision cameras watch over two reception areas of Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment offices. Photo: Farah Hancock

A Chinese brand of surveillance cameras being ripped out of United States and Australian government locations is in use at Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment offices and local council locations in New Zealand.

The ministry is the lead commercial agency in the public sector, is working on a national electronic security project and is campaigning during this Cyber Smart week for New Zealanders to take care of their online presence.

After questions from Newsroom, MBIE said it was considering an audit of its closed circuit camera systems.

A spokesperson said: “We have a range of CCTV suppliers covering our needs in New Zealand and international offices. Our cameras operate on a closed circuit and are not connected to MBIE’s or other networks.

“We do not see any cause for concern but are looking to undertake an audit of all our CCTV systems. We are working through a national electronic security procurement project that will further clarify controls on specifications and standards”

The Hikvision cameras manufactured by a company part-owned by the Chinese government will be banned from federal agency use in the US from next year. A Hikvision camera has also been removed from the Edinburgh Royal Australian Air Force base after an item broadcast by the ABC drew attention to it.

US officials feared the use of the company’s equipment could provide the ability for espionage.

“Video surveillance and security equipment sold by Chinese companies exposes the US government to significant vulnerabilities, and my amendment will ensure that China cannot create a video surveillance network within federal agencies,” said the Republican congresswoman Vicky Hartzler who was the architect of an amendment to National Defence Authorization Act banning Hikvision and Dahua, another Chinese brand.

By August 2019, all Hikvision and Dahua cameras must be removed from US federal locations. The US is one of the five-eyes intelligence alliance of which New Zealand is also a member.

A security flaw discovered in 2017 exposed how Hikvision cameras could be easily hacked, and the footage viewed. The backdoor into the devices could be accessed over the internet and a hacker could gain full administration rights of cameras.

Doubts have lingered over whether the flaw was accidental or intentional, if other flaws might be present, or could be introduced in firmware updates, and whether these might be used by the Chinese government for espionage.

In New Zealand Hikvision cameras monitor Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) offices in Auckland.

Newsroom’s queries regarding the number of cameras installed, if the brand was specified by MBIE and why, what evaluations were completed and if there are plans to replace them were referred to an Official Information Act yesterday by MBIE, who would not confirm whether they use the brand.

Hikvision cameras are in plain sight in two of MBIE’s reception areas in Auckland offices.

MBIE have been promoting Cyber Smart week on social media, encouraging New Zealanders to check if their apps are up-to-date and passwords unique.

A Hikvision camera at MBIE's offices. 
A Hikvision camera at MBIE’s offices.

Hikvision’s range of cameras and recording systems boast impressive capabilities, including facial recognition and licence plate recognition. As well as camera surveillance systems the company makes industrial drones, robots for factories and is entering into the smart city market.

It commands 11 percent of the global surveillance market and receives a preferential corporate tax rate of 10 to 15 percent from the Chinese government which owns 42 percent of the company, as well as thousands of acres of land in Hangzhou to house its facilities.

A New Zealand-based Hikvision business development manager said Hikvision staff are not allowed to talk to media and messages left with the Hikvision Sydney-based marketing manager Newsroom was referred to have not been returned. According to the website of Atlas Gentech, Hikvision’s New Zealand distributor, Hikvision’s cameras are spread throughout New Zealand.

“Did they test them, what research did they do before they decided to buy them?”

Auckland Transport films Auckland traffic from level 61 of the Sky Tower. Tauranga City Council uses the cameras to help catch criminals. In Whanganui a solution with licence plate recognition is used to monitor stock theft. Hikvision cameras with infrared capability also monitor Oamaru’s blue penguin colony.

Chinese foreign intelligence might not glean much of use from blue penguins or Auckland’s traffic congestion, but there is concern over the country’s interference in New Zealand.

The office and home of a University of Canterbury Professor Anne-Marie Brady were burgled last December. Brady researches China’s influence in the region and had presented papers on the topic. Three laptops and two phones were taken by the burglars, who ignored cash and valuables.

Police are still investigating the thefts and Interpol is also involved. A CCTV camera has now been placed in Brady’s office. It is unknown what brand this is.

Last year Newsroom investigated National list MP Jian Yang’s past studying at an elite Chinese spy school, a fact he did not disclose on his CV.

Victoria University of Wellington associate professor Ian Welch said problems with the security of systems such as cameras which connect to the internet are well-known.

“With IoT (internet of things) devices they are notorious for having poor security. You really want to make sure you have them in an environment where you can lock down what they do.”

He said if for government and local government installations he would want to know what evaluation procedure had been undertaken.

“Did they test them, what research did they do before they decided to buy them?”

Regardless of whether the products are from China he believes the decision process around surveillance cameras should be transparent and not “security through obscurity”.

University of Canterbury’s Doctor Dan Dong-Seong Kim said software vulnerabilities are known to have occurred in Hikvision products but said other brands may have security issues too.

When asked if he would be concerned if a government department was using Hikvision products his answer was: “Yes.”

Hikvision has hit out at the US federal agency ban in a statement:

“The amendment prohibiting the US federal government purchasing video surveillance equipment from China-based manufacturers was made without a complete accounting of the facts and with no evidence to justify the claims made by its sponsors.”

Other Chinese-based companies have generated suspicion. Telecommunications company Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corp are banned from taking part in Australia’s 5G rollout and a recent Bloomberg article claims rogue microchips were hidden in Chinese-built server components which ended up in Apple and Amazon. New Zealand has not rolled Huawei out of its big telecommunications projects, including the 5G rollout planned for the next couple of years.

As well as cameras carrying Hikvision branding, there is a range of what is referred to as OEM (original equipment manufacturers) brands which are Hikvision made cameras but carry a different brand.

By Farah Hancock

Farah Hancock is a Newsroom reporter based in Auckland who writes on education, conservation and technology.

Article republished with permission from Newsroom

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