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Are Chinese tech companies spying on Australia?

Australia is filled with technology sponsored by the Chinese government. Photo: ABC

Surveillance systems, most notably CCTV cameras and advanced biometric technologies, have expanded at an unprecedented rate in Australia since the events of September 11th, and today have become a security staple of governments, private businesses and individuals alike.

Authorities and experts have both raised concerns that some of the most popular brands of cameras, drones and other accessories in Australia, are being used as a surveillance intermediary for foreign entities, particularly the Chinese government.

OVERVIEW: CCTV CAMERAS

In Australia, ‘open-street’ or ‘town centre’ CCTV cameras employ visual surveillance systems established by local government authorities, in cooperation with police, to monitor public spaces such as malls and major town squares.

While CCTV systems were initially located in the central business districts (CBD) of capital cities, there is a notable trend toward public space surveillance in smaller regional and rural centre and suburban locations.

CCTV has expanded rapidly in public spaces, and it remains a controversial measure where outcomes and appropriateness are hotly contested.

Critics suggest there are significant downsides to the use of CCTV in public spaces, including a major concern is that CCTV may target already vulnerable sections of the population and result in political or social exclusion.

Other concerns relate to the possibility that CCTV surveillance will be, and is being used, to undermine individual freedoms and facilitate oppressive forms of social control.

According to reports, Chinese video surveillance companies have become entrenched in Australia’s government and public systems, including being used to monitor security threats at sensitive military bases, front entrances of political complexes, town CBDs and much more.

There are also hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras in houses, on street corners, in local council offices, at schools and universities, on buses, in shopping centres and thousands of other public spaces across Australia.

Indeed, most of Australia now has ‘digital eyes’ monitoring for ‘safety and security’ purposes.

The problem? There is currently little safeguards to ensure a uniformed approach to surveillance technology used, leaving many concerned that the technology can be exploited at any time.

Many of the companies developing the technology are openly run by the Chinese government and are facing harsh spying accusations all across the world.

CHINESE COMPANIES

HIKIVISION AND DAHUA

Hikvision and Dahua, the largest and the second-largest video surveillance companies in the world, are responsible for many of the cameras installed across the country.

Reports show both companies are in use at every level of government, from some of the most sensitive federal government agencies, all the way down to suburban councils.

For example, the town of Murgon in QLD, recently unveiled a 54-camera, 17-site wifi Hikvision CCTV system which is now used by Murgon Police to watch over parts of the town’s CBD:

Documents have also revealed expensive contracts for the “supply of video cameras and accessories” between the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Central Security Distribution, one of the largest distributors of technology made by both companies in Australia.

Furthermore, cameras developed by both Hikvision and Dahua have been found at the Department of Home Affairs, Attorney-General’s office, AUSTRAC, the Office of National Assessments, major train stations and riddled through local government facilities.

Transport for NSW, when asked what rules guided their choice of security camera providers, a spokesperson confirmed there is no regulations surrounding installation processes:

“We are not in receipt of any specific advice from State or Commonwealth agencies about specific CCTV vendors.”

The most serious example was a Hikvision camera discovered at one of Australia’s most classified defence facilities, RAAF Base Edinburgh in Adelaide.

According to Defence SA’s website, Edinburgh is “the centre of the nation’s military intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic warfare capabilities”.

The report uncovered an array of sophisticated technologies developed by both companies.

Both companies are currently facing long-standing accusations of spying on behalf of the Chinese government.

In fact, Hikvision grew out of a China’s military surveillance wing and the Chinese government still retains a 42 per cent stake in the company.

CETHIK is the Chinese government division created expressly to manage Hikvision, and the Chinese government has controlled Hikvision since they created it in 2001.

Last month, Hikvision and Dahua were banned from US government use via an amendment to a defence spending bill, after concerns of illegal monitoring.

Company names have been directly inserted into the new government amendment:

Hikvision and Dahua are yet to reply directly to requests for comments on the spying accusations reported in Australia, and have hired many lobbyists in recent months to fight the claims.

DJI AND DRONES

Another field in which a Chinese company is a global leader is the camera-toting, and increasingly ubiquitous, quadcopters market – or consumer camera drones.

More than two out of every three consumer drones sold this year were made by Da-Jing Innovations, better known in the West as DJI.

Recent reports by security researchers that DJI was collecting audio, visual and telemetry data on every flight of every single one of their drones, and the potential for the Chinese Government to leverage that collection was significant.

A memo from the Los Angeles office of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement has also been making the rounds and confirms bold claims about drone-maker DJI.

The memo, which was issued in August, says that the officials assess:

“…Moderate confidence that Chinese-based company DJI Science and Technology is providing US critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government.”

The company’s drones were increasingly being used by military and police forces around the world until August last year, when the US Army banned them due to “increased awareness of cyber vulnerabilities”.

The Australian military responded to the US action within days, banning the drones, however reversed the call just two weeks later following the introduction of “revised operating procedures”.

This is despite legitimate security vulnerabilities brought up in regards to DJI’s systems.

The FAA produced a FAA Forcast citing there will be millions of hobby drones flying by 2020.

The commercial drone numbers show that there might be over 300,000 flying as of today. That’s just the commercial end of the drone units this year.

A quick look at DJI’s user agreement confirms concerns that information may be shared with authorities:

“We may preserve and disclose your information if required to do so by law or in the good-faith belief that such action is necessary to comply with applicable laws, in response to a court order, judicial or other government subpoena, warrant or request, or to otherwise cooperate with law enforcement or other governmental agencies.

Please note that if you conduct your flight in specific countries, your flight data might be monitored and provided to governmental authorities according to local regulatory law.”

Many civil liberty advocates have already expressed concerns about the lack of regulations surrounding personal drone use in Australia, and the fact that manufacturers are now being exposed as potential backdoors to foreign intelligence, has made the backlash worse.

Who is able to fly through the skies with us as we are seemingly recording on our own?

SECURECORP TAKEOVER

The final key piece in this narrative involves the recent Chinese acquisition of SecureCorp, one of Australia’s largest security firms.

SecureCorp was established in 1989 and is now a leading provider of man-power security, electronic security and monitoring, integrated and cleaning services, to some of Australia’s most high-profile organisations and events.

More than two years have passed since Hong Kong company Guardforce Group was allowed to complete its $158 million takeover of Securecorp, with only the mildest of concerns raised in the Victorian upper house.

There are worries that Securecorp’s Chinese owners might exploit operational powers in Australia, which includes 96 CCTV cameras in Melbourne’s CBD and security operations, at everything from Westfield shopping centres, to Glencore mines and the Melbourne Cricket Ground:

Source: City of Melbourne

Securecorp’s clients include the Defence Department, the MCG, the Phillip Island mot­orcycle Grand Prix, the Melbourne Museum, Melbourne universities and councils, inc­luding the City of Melbourne.

In addition, Securecorp’s boast of being a “trusted partner in the defence industry”, and has also previously been linked to a $11.5 million contract with the Australian Electoral Commission.

Gavin Jennings told parliament that a government review into any links between Securecorp and China must be undertaken:

“I think it is entirely appropriate for the Victorian government to look through the police portfolio and have a look at … the link to the network of CCTV footage, and are they (Securecorp) part of police operations?’’

SecureCorp employs more than 3000 staff and operates throughout Australia.

The firm was recently appointed as a key security provider to the 2018 Commonwealth Games on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

At the Commonwealth Games, it was announced that facial recognition and biometric technology will be introduced across the city to monitor ‘terrorist activities’, in a move slammed by the Privacy Commissioner as an “unprecedented example of predictive policing, with parallels perhaps only in China and Russia.

Shortly after the conclusion of the event, authorities announced that the technology used, including CCTV and advanced AI biometrics, will remain in place indefinitely on the Gold Coast.

Starting to see the connections here?

SURVEILLANCE CONCERNS

These concerns are just another example of a long history of exchanges between intelligence services in both the West and East, which has seen a number of key government policies developed to regulate and dictate the use of information sharing in the digital era.

In fact, Australian spy chief Nick Warner has recently identified innovations in nanotechnology, quantum computing, synthetic biology, facial recognition and gait recognition, as particularly significant in terms of changes facing Australia, with China at the forefront of all areas.

China’s intelligence gathering in this area has largely fallen to the Ministry of State Security (MSS) and, since 2010, foreign intelligence services have begun to recognise the agency as the leading edge in China’s campaign to rapidly upgrade its economy through the theft of intellectual property.

Like the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), which is charged with aiding “national economic well-being”, the MSS has taken the lead in advancing China’s economic development.

In addition to CCTV concerns, the Australian government has begun to ban other state-sponsored devices, including recently blocking mobile providers from China.

Citing national security concerns, Australia last month prohibited telecommunications equipment manufacturers Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corp from taking part in domestic carriers planned roll-out of advanced 5G mobile networks.

Australia expanded its national security rules in August to exclude telecommunication equipment suppliers that it believes have ties to foreign governments.

Fergus Hanson, head of the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, gave his thoughts on the technology in Australia:

“Having these sorts of cameras in secure facilities just doesn’t make any sense. It’s a real dereliction of duty to have them in military bases.

But even on the street, you’ve got the potential to inadvertently contribute towards Chinese espionage activity by providing real time information about the situation on the ground, all over the world, and in collective terms, quite an important data feed to China.”

The vast majority of CCTV cameras are owned and monitored by private security companies, or by private householders and businesses, so we have no idea how many are in operation in Australia.

We know that there are more active mobile phone accounts, most of which have a recording capability, than there are people.

YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and other social media brands now provide welcome platforms for the immediate worldwide distribution of recordings and images.

This is potentially exposing all of our homes, communities, and families to foreign entities.

Let’s not forget: China has recently installed ‘the world’s most advanced video surveillance system’ with over 20 million AI-equipped street cameras.

There are concerns similar systems, particularly China’s ‘Social Credit’ System, may soon reach Australia after an incremental rollout of advanced biometric technology across the country.

Under the system, an official Party outline claims, it will “allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”.

As CCTV systems continue to expand, there needs to be a more thorough investigation into the desirability of statutory regulation, and further focus on the companies manufacturing and distributing this technology all across Australia.

Currently, there is no specific state or territory legislation covering CCTV in public areas.

Who is watching the ‘watchers’ of Australian society?


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RELATED LINKS

Chinese cameras spying on Australians | Australian Computer Society

Report Raises CCTV Security Concerns | South Burnett

CCTV monitoring: the ethical issues | IFS Global

Contract Notice View – CN2588312 – Australian Federal Police | Tenders.gov

Contract Notice View – CN2528081 – Australian Electoral Commission | Tenders.gov

US House Passes Bill Banning Gov Use of Dahua and Hikvision | IPVM

A Global Information Gathering Network for UAS – DJI data collection | sUAS

Da Jiang Innovations (DJI) Likely Providing U.S. Critical Infrastructure and Law Enforcement Data to Chinese Government | Immigrations and Customs Enforcement

US Army calls for units to discontinue use of DJI equipment | sUAS

Safe City cameras | City of Melbourne

Commonwealth Games: Privacy Commissioner slams facial recognition plans as ‘unprecedented’ | TOTT News

Facial recognition technology to stay following Commonwealth Games | TOTT News

Spy chief Nick Warner on the security threats facing Australia, from terrorism to North Korea | ABC

Australia spy chief says 5G risks high, in nod to China firms’ exclusion | Reuters

Big brother is watching you! China installs ‘the world’s most advanced video surveillance system’ | Daily Mail

China’s ‘Social Credit System’ may soon reach Australia | TOTT News


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