Scottish Government pressed over removal of surveillance cameras with alleged ‘back door’ vulnerability

MSPs have called on ministers to clarify whether tech from Chinese IT firm Hikvision is being removed from local councils after revelations of reported security weakness uncovered by BBC investigation

Scottish Government ministers have been put under pressure to confirm the removal of Chinese surveillance cameras from local authorities claims that they are vulnerable to hackers.

Chinese manufacturer Hikvision’s surveillance cameras, which are used by at least 11 Scottish councils, were found to have a “back door” vulnerability that could be taken advantage of by hackers, according to an investigation recently broadcast as part of BBC’s Panorama programme.

Reporters found that hackers were able to take control of the cameras and effectively spy on subjects – in the case of the Panorama’s experiment stealing passwords which were then used to unlock a laptop and a phone. 

Working with US-based IPVM, a research group focused on surveillance technology, a Hikvision camera was installed in a BBC office. It was found that the camera had a vulnerability that was discovered in 2017. 

IPVM’s director Conor Healy described this as “a back door that Hikvision built into its own products.”

The number of Hikvision cameras used on Scottish streets is unknown. 

The CCTV manufacturer told Panorama that they are not a threat to UK national security: “Hikvision has never conducted, nor will it conduct, any espionage-related activities for any government in the world. Products are subject to strict security requirements and are compliant with the applicable laws and regulations in the UK, as well as any other country and region we operate in.”

Alex Cole-Hamilton, a member of the Scottish Parliament and the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, called on ministers to clarify whether the technology had been removed from the facilities of public bodies.

“There is no way that companies subject to Chinese state intelligence laws should be at the heart of our CCTV systems,” he said. “Scottish Liberal Democrats have previously revealed that at least 11 local authorities use cameras manufactured by the Chinese firm Hikvision. We also led the way in pressing the Scottish Government and Police Scotland to ensure that these systems were not in use in their own buildings. From Hikvision to TikTok, the Scottish Government has consistently dragged its feet in taking action to counter surveillance risks.

He added: “We need ministerial confirmation that Hikvision cameras have been removed from all Scottish Government sites, that local authorities have been contacted and encouraged to remove this technology from their own sites, and that a comprehensive investigation into the reach of the Chinese state in Scotland will take place.”

Hikvision is the latest Chinese tech company to come under scrutiny for its use in a public sector context, after moves in recent years – in both Holyrood and Westminster – to eradicate Huawei systems from the UK’s 5G network and to ban the use of TikTok in government buildings.

Ruaraidh Gilmour and Sam Trendall

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