The names Dahua and Hikvision have become ubiquitous on the worldwide surveillance equipment market, supplying governments, enterprises, and citizens in over 180 countries with cutting-edge security technology. However, this progress has not been made without controversy. 

Doubts around the security of Dahua and Hikvision’s devices are compounded by their close affiliation with the Chinese state, according to the Big Brother Watch organization. Vulnerabilities in the hardware manufactured by these companies, most notably security cameras, reveal the potential for enormous amounts of personal data to be fed back to the central government, raising concerns about its misuse, data protection, accountability, and privacy.

While insecure security systems and potential Chinese surveillance pose a threat to the end user, the products and practices of the two companies also intersect with the Russia-Ukraine war.

Tech Progress and Ethical Concerns

Bringing to the market hi-tech at low cost, Dahua and Hikvision’s surveillance equipment has contributed to the rapid growth of the surveillance tech industry. However, despite this rapid proliferation, these companies remain highly controversial.

In use at scale worldwide, the apparent security failures of Dahua and Hikvision hardware have introduced serious concerns over network security and individual privacy. Several notable events have brought to light either malign intent or serious inefficiencies in how these companies approach data security.

  • In 2016, a huge D-DoS attack against an American cybersecurity expert was facilitated through Dahua China security cameras and DVRs. 
  • In 2017, through the exploitation of a backdoor present in Dahua security cameras, attackers gained access to a private database of usernames and passwords.
  • In the same year, the Agency for Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection, a division of the US Department of Homeland Security, branded Hikvision China security cameras with the worst possible rating for tamper resistance.
  • In 2021, The EU Parliament voted to remove Hikvision China security cameras that had been installed in 2020 due to accusations of the company being complicit in human rights abuses. An amendment was passed with 89.4% of 701 MEPs voting for the Hikvision ban.
  • Concerns about this equipment were compounded when it was revealed that more than 80,000 insecure Hikvision devices were remotely accessed, the ensuing credential leaks further emphasizing the potential consequences of the inherent vulnerabilities of the company’s products.
  • Last year, the UK government insistence saw Dahua cameras banned from government premises “…to prevent any security risks materialising."

Notwithstanding the use of their equipment across many borders and jurisdictions, Dahua’s independence from government influence appears to be minimal. This, along with the exposure of chronic vulnerabilities and serious compromises of data security and user safety, has seen several countries, including the United States, insist on a Hikvision ban and prohibit government institutions from using Dahua devices, which saw all Dahua cameras banned due to national security concerns. 

Surveillance's Dual Role: A Tool and a Weapon

The enormous scale of the datasets that clandestine surveillance elicits can be utilized to facilitate targeted surveillance, methods of broad social control, and weaponized to oppressive ends, domestically and internationally.

According to a report based on a leaked recording, Hikvision plays a role in the alleged intrusive social control projects conducted by the Chinese state through the provision of facial, video, and human body analysis software that permits so-called "Uyghur detection". The use of this technology has come under widespread criticism as it enables potential human rights abuses through the use of ethnic profiling. Hikvision maintains that these claims are unsubstantiated.

Furthermore, the global market prominence enjoyed by Dahua and Hikvision may extend the reach of Chinese surveillance abilities. Thanks in part to their relatively cheap procurement, the security infrastructure in many nations relies heavily on Dahua and Hikvision equipment. 

International Implications

Indeed, while the security flaws of Dahua and Hikvision goods raise serious concerns over the issue of individual liberty, perhaps more worryingly, the adaptability of these devices can see them serve as a viable tool of modern warfare.

Digital technology has revolutionized combat, with even consumer drones being suited to the contemporary battlefield. Digital surveillance technologies can be harnessed in a similar way to, for example, locate and identify infrastructure targets, military equipment, unit maneuvers and logistics.

Concerningly, consumer devices manufactured by Dahua and Hikvision can be adapted to these purposes, and individual components supplied by these companies may be incorporated in third-party equipment.

Since the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war in 2022, Hikvision has seen increased profitability from the Russian market. In 2022, the company’s turnover in the Russian Federation increased by 42%, net profit increased almost 18 times, from approximately $1m USD in 2021 to $18m in 2022, and the number of company employees doubled, making Russia the company’s largest European market. Dahua continues to supply goods to Russia, although it asserts that the company plays no part in the industry behind the ongoing war.

The significance of this presence in Russia is twofold. Accusations that these companies continue to supply components used in military equipment, including weaponry, such as optics, thermal imagery equipment, sensors and drones, have seen Dahua and Hikvision appear on Ukraine’s National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption (NAPC)’s list of International Sponsors of War, and bolstered calls for accountability. Furthermore, according to IPVM, the continuing presence in Russia, and the tax revenue that the company generates, can be seen as tacit complicity in waging war.

Consumer Impact

The proliferation of the Internet of Things and the blurring of the digital and the physical potentiates the risks of surveillance technology being abused for authoritarian purposes and to commit violence.

Policy and legislation can pushback against the complicit or by proxy misuse of technology, but consumer choices and boycotts of companies that do not address these concerns with due care and accountability can make a difference too. 

As consumers, we must take into account the ethical implications of supporting companies involved in activity which may jeopardize our right to privacy, and use our collective voice to send a clear message that they must reorient their practices to align with societal ethics and values or face long-lasting reputational damage.

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