For example, the research found 55,455 Hikvision networks in London. “From my experience of just walking around London, it would probably be several times over that. They’re in almost every supermarket,” says Samuel Woodhams, a researcher at Top10VPN who carried out the study.

The prevalence of Hikvision cameras overseas has caused anxieties around national security, even though it hasn’t been proved that the company transfers its overseas data back to China. In 2019, the US passed a bill banning Hikvision from holding any contracts with the federal government.

What really made Hikvision infamous on the global stage was its involvement in China’s oppressive policies in Xinjiang against Muslim minorities, mostly Uyghurs. Numerous surveillance cameras, many equipped with advanced facial recognition, have been installed both inside and outside the detention camps in Xinjiang to aid the government’s control over the region. And Hikvision has been a big part of this activity. The company was found to have received at least $275 million in government contracts to build surveillance in the region and has developed AI cameras that can detect physical features of Uyghur ethnicity. 

Presented with questions about Xinjiang by MIT Technology Review, Hikvision responded with a statement that did not address them directly but said the company “has and will continue to strictly comply with applicable laws and regulations in the countries where we operate, following internationally accepted business ethics and business standards.”

“The ways [companies like Hikvision] are able to hold people in place through the checkpoints and face recognition systems have turned the entire region, from the Uyghur perspective at least, into a flexible [but] closed system. They often talk about it as an open-air prison,” says Darren Byler, an anthropologist at Simon Fraser University and the author of In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony. “And that really wouldn’t be possible without these tech companies.”

Uncharted waters

Adding Hikvision to the SDN would do more than ratchet up tensions between the US and China—it would open up a new front in international sanctions, one in which tech companies increasingly find themselves embroiled in geopolitical power struggles.

People could be criminally prosecuted for working or doing business with the company once the sanction is announced, says Healy: “[Hikvision] can no longer interact with the US dollar or the US financial system. And other banks and other financial institutions around the world, generally speaking, will also not do business with you, because they want to maintain their access to the US dollar and to US financial markets.” 

At the very least, this would mean Hikvision wouldn’t be able to sell its cameras outside China, and its international revenues would fall to zero. But it’s unclear whether governments and companies already using Hikvision cameras would be asked to replace them immediately. Then things get even trickier when it comes to the Hikvision services beyond the hardware. Can current Hikvision users accept software updates from the company? Use the company’s cloud storage? “That’s exactly the kind of thing [the US government] might make an exception for here,” says Healy, because traditional enforcement of the SDN list may become impractical in the digital era. 

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