Councils and police should consider CCTV firms’ human rights records before purchasing, the surveillance camera watchdog has said.
Tom Tugendhat MP, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has backed Professor Fraser Sampson’s call.
The committee has previously called for a ban on Chinese camera technology that it claims was used in internment camps for Uyghurs.
However, there are doubts that the proposed ethical rule will be added to the CCTV code.
Don’t look away
The Surveillance Camera Code of Practice will be updated soon, the first time in eight years.
It will lay out the rules that police and local governments in England and Wales must follow when using surveillance cameras.
According to Professor Sampson, the update must require public bodies to consider the ethics of the companies that provide camera technology.
He told the BBC that for the time being, “it is possible to buy camera systems and avert one’s eyes from the kind of surveillance operator practises that the Commons foreign affairs committee has clearly condemned.”
“By turning a blind eye and focusing solely on the price, we ignore the ethical cost.”
He stated that “an ethical and socially responsible approach” is required “where surveillance systems are purchased with public funds.”
Professor Sampson believes it is reasonable to expect surveillance technology suppliers to act ethically: “We exhort companies to set net-zero carbon targets – is it too much to ask them to set net-zero human rights abuse targets?”
“I’m pleased to see the surveillance camera commissioner call for ethical considerations to be included in the camera code,” Tom Tugendhat MP told the BBC.
“The foreign affairs committee has already called for a ban on companies linked to the heinous human rights violations occurring in Xinjiang.”
“Those purchasing equipment should think about the ethical and moral costs as well as the price.”
On July 8, the Foreign Affairs Committee issued a report in which it stated that cameras manufactured by the Chinese firm Hikvision “provide the primary camera technology used in internment camps” and recommended that it “should not be permitted to operate within the UK.”
The camps, according to China, are “re-education” facilities used to combat terrorism.
Hikvision has stated that it does not supervise or control its devices after they are handed over to installers, adding that “operational matters are not within our remit.”
The firm has labelled the committee’s allegations as “unsubstantiated and unsupported by evidence.”
Many local councils use Hikvision’s devices, research by Top10VPN found. Samuel Woodhams, who carried out the study, welcomed the commissioner’s intervention and said it “must now be followed up with concrete action”.
Professor Sampson is conducting his own investigations into the allegations made by the Foreign Affairs Committee against Hikvision.
He told the BBC that he was still dissatisfied with the firm’s responses, and that he would have expected a “unequivocal response to reports that their practises had been ethically compromised, but that has not been the case.”
He claims the company offered him a meeting with a senior lawyer, which he declined because the contents could not be shared with the media or the general public.
Hikvision told the BBC that it “respects human rights and strives to maintain the highest standards in all aspects of manufacturing, labour, supply chain, and end-use.”
“Hikvision has always followed the camera code of practise, going above and beyond as industry leaders, and we intend to continue to do so in the future.”
According to Professor Sampson, the code should provide guidance “where there is reason to believe that suppliers or manufacturers have been associated with breaches of international law or human rights abuses.”
The BBC understands that people close to the process are sceptical that this will be included in the rules.
The Home Office did not reveal the contents of the new code, but told the BBC that it supported appropriate police use of technologies such as CCTV, adding, “The UK has led international efforts at the UN to hold China accountable for its human rights violations in Xinjiang.”
“We have also imposed sanctions on senior Chinese government officials, including asset freezes and travel bans, and announced measures to help ensure that no UK organisations are complicit in these violations through their supply chains.”
The government also pointed out that it was consulting on transferring the surveillance camera commissioner’s role to the information commissioner’s office – something both Professor Sampson and the current independent reviewer of terrorism legislation oppose.