Credit: Athina Bohner, University of Glasgow.

Chinese surveillance cameras at UofG linked to human rights abuse allegations and security fears

By Athina Bohner

Dozens of Chinese surveillance cameras used inside a University of Glasgow building have been linked to allegations of Uyghur human rights abuses and security fears, an investigation by The Glasgow Guardian has found.

The Glasgow Guardian has identified at least 49 CCTV cameras inside a Glasgow University building which were manufactured by the Chinese state-owned surveillance company Hikvision. Blacklisted by the US government since 2019, Hikvision has faced long-standing allegations of aiding China’s human rights abuses against Uyghurs through mass surveillance.

Mass surveillance has been identified as a key tool in repressing Uyghurs, a predominantly-Muslim ethnic minority of about 12 million, who live in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, more than 1 million Uyghurs are believed to be held in internment or ‘reeducation’ camps, with Human Rights Watch accusing the Chinese government of committing crimes against humanity.

In 2021, the UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee published a report, stating: “Cameras made by the Chinese firm Hikvision have been deployed throughout Xinjiang, and provide the primary camera technology used in the internment camps”. Additionally, concerns have been raised about Chinese CCTV cameras’ potential threat to national security. Hikvision has repeatedly denied such claims.

The dozens of Hikvision cameras identified by The Glasgow Guardian are located inside the £90 million James McCune Smith Learning Hub (JMS), which opened in 2021. Named after the prominent civil rights activist and first African-American to earn a medical degree, the JMS building is a popular study location, with space for over 2,500 UofG students. The CCTV cameras are visibly labelled with Hikvision branding. 

In June 2023, the British government announced the removal of Chinese-made CCTV cameras from “sensitive sites” in UK government buildings. In particular, security experts cite China’s national intelligence law, which requires organisations and citizens to “support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work in accordance with the law”.

Moreover, campaign groups have expressed concerns about Hikvision’s facial recognition technology, with reports that the company advertised race and ethnicity recognition features. According to the Hikvision website, “facial recognition is available in a great number of Hikvision’s products, from entry-level to advanced models.” Hikvison offers face recognition terminals at school gates to prevent unregistered persons from entry, in addition to advertising “automated student attendance recording to reduce teacher’s burden”.

In response to growing pressure from campaigners, major UK retailers, including Tesco and Morrisons, have announced that they will remove Hikvision cameras from their stores. Similarly, the City of Edinburgh Council agreed to remove Hikvision cameras within their “public realm network’” In addition, the Scottish Government confirmed in 2022 that it “has a number of legacy items manufactured by Hikvision which are being phased out as part of an on-going security improvement programme”.

As the world’s largest surveillance technology company, there are an estimated 1.2 million Hikvision cameras across the UK, including cameras used in school toilets. According to Freedom of Information requests obtained by the campaign group Big Brother Watch in 2022, 27 out of 29 Scottish councils use surveillance equipment produced by Hikvision, while 48.4% of UK universities appear to be using Hikvision cameras. In their 2022 report, Big Brother Watch estimated that “60.8% of all public bodies [in the UK], may use Hikvision and Dahua surveillance”

In 2022, a cross-party group of 67 MPs and Lords called on the UK Government to ban the sale and operation of Hikvison and Dahua surveillance equipment, another major Chinese CCTV company. One of the statement’s signatories is Joanna Cherry KC, Member of Parliament for Edinburgh South West. 

Joanna Cherry KC MP told The Glasgow Guardian: “Last year I joined MPs and Lords supporting a call from Big Brother Watch for a ban on the sale of Hikvision and Dahua surveillance equipment in the UK. It is concerning that so many of our public institutions including government departments and universities use this equipment. Both companies have been closely linked to the genocide in Xinjiang and their low-cost, high-tech cameras are normalising intrusive surveillance in the UK.”

Dr. David Tobin, a lecturer in East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield told The Glasgow Guardian: “It is essential for people to understand why those [Hikvision] cameras exist in the first place, which is to monitor people’s behaviour and to racially profile them.” Referring to Hikvision’s facial recognition capabilities, Dr. Tobin said: “If it was a British company, this would be considered a scandal. There would be questions asked, particularly charges of racism.” However, he argues that “a company coming from China is facing no scrutiny.”

The academic, who is from Glasgow and lived in the Xinjiang region for two years, said he is “not surprised” by the presence of Hikvision cameras at UofG. He told The Glasgow Guardian: “The fact that [Hikvison cameras] are being removed from government buildings shows that they are a security risk. The question is why have they not been removed from other public spaces?”

Dr. Tobin led and organised the Scottish Centre for China Research at the University of Glasgow from 2013 to 2015. He told The Glasgow Guardian that he stopped visiting Xinjiang in 2017 over safety fears, remarking that “I would probably be detained for my research”. Dr. Tobin said: “The last time I visited, I realised I could not return due to the introduction of surveillance technology and the way in which the Uyghur people were targeted for detention for having foreign friends.”

Dr. Tobin said that “people should be concerned about having this type of technology in Britain”. He added: “On an ethical level, it feels wrong.” However, there is no evidence to suggest that the Hikvision cameras installed at the JMS are of models which have facial recognition features, or that information gathered at the University of Glasgow goes back to China.

A spokesperson for the Glasgow University Amnesty International society told The Glasgow Guardian that the group is “disappointed” to learn of Hikvision’s presence on campus. The group emphasised the University’s responsibility in safeguarding the privacy of students, and urged “the University to discontinue using technology produced by companies involved in deplorable human rights violations.” It calls upon University administration to “take immediate action, ensuring the removal of these cameras, in order to create an environment that upholds ethical standards and respect for human dignity.”

Rahima Mahmut, the executive director of the UK-based campaign Stop Uyghur Genocide, told The Glasgow Guardian that “the adoption of unethical surveillance systems has spawned a ‘digital asbestos’ legacy in the UK’s public surveillance”. She added: “Engaging in partnerships with companies that have enabled repression and surveillance contradicts the fundamental values of knowledge-sharing and academic freedom within universities, posing a risk to the wellbeing of Uyghur students”.

A Freedom of Information request obtained by The Glasgow Guardian denied the existence of Hikvision cameras on campus, however, a University of Glasgow spokesperson told The Glasgow Guardian: “There are a number of Hikvision manufactured cameras installed in the James McCune Smith Learning Hub. The University was not aware of any alleged links when the equipment was procured by the contractors, based on performance specifications. Since we were made aware of alleged links, in 2021, the University has stopped installing Hikvision cameras and has committed to only use NDAA compliant brands in the future.  We do not share any data from these cameras with the manufacturer.”


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