Chinese surveillance camera and facial recognition technology company Hikvision will follow Huawei onto Trump Administration's security blacklist within weeks, according to a New York Times report - a move that could put heat on local Hikvision customers such as the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE) and Auckland Transport.
The blacklist stops US technology companies supplying banned Chinese companies with components.
The blacklist is driven by Donald Trump, but Democrats in the House of Representatives and Senate had already moved against the controversial Hikvision.
Congress also included a provision in its 2019 military spending authorisation bill that banned federal agencies from using Chinese video surveillance products made by Hikvision or a second Chinese company, Dahua.
There are two issues. One is whether Hikvision is colluding with Chinese authorities for espionage. The other whether the technology - especially in its gaffe-prone infancy - is just too invasive.
NZ Council for Civil Liberties chairman Thomas Beagle sums it up in a word: "Creepy."
Last year, the part Chinese government-owned Hikvision ran into controversy when a "back door" was discovered in the software that controls its cameras. Security experts were not clear if it was poorly written code or evidence of collusion with Chinese spy agencies - but it was enough for US lawmakers, and now the White House, to act.
Hikvision, which has 34,000 employees in China and a growing global business, bills itself as the world's largest security camera company.
A Times report says Hikvision camera and drones, coupled with the company's facial recognition system, are a key part of a multi-billion dollar, "intrusive" Chinese government operation to surveil its own citizens and "subdue minorities."
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Last October, MBIE said it was reviewing its use of Hikvision cameras in its buildings.
Today, the agency told the Herald that review was ongoing.
MBIE was still using pre-existing Hikvision CCTV cameras in the meantime, a spokeswoman said, "as there has been no solid evidence to prove that the quality and performance of this product, in the way MBIE uses it, is compromised".
She said the ministry was not using Hikvision's facial recognition capability, or other tracking features offered by the Chinese company.
Hikvision wasn't being targetted per se, she said. It was being assessed as part of a wider review.
There was no evidence Chinese agencies are using secret back doors in Hikvision gear to monitor MBIE meetings, or hack wider NZ government networks.
"MBIE is reviewing all our security providers and has a strategy in progress to procure a single national provider for the supply of all security hardware, software and security guards to ensure consistency in quality, reliability, support and value for money," she said.
"As part of this process, we are carrying out an audit to assess the current state of our security assets."
Hikvision's local distributor, Atlas Gentech, uses Auckland Transport (AT) as one of its hero case studies.
AT recently installed a Hikvision 4K PTZ Laser Cameras at level 61 of the Sky Tower "giving a perfect bird's eye view of Auckland City and surrounding areas".
Today, an AT spokesman said, "Auckland Transport uses 1725 Hikvision cameras for CCTV across the transport network at bus stations, rail stations, ferry wharves, road intersections and parking buildings to manage our operations and for safety reasons".
"AT's use of Hikvision cameras is restricted to closed secure networks that are not able to connect to the internet, therefore there is no threat of any breach. The use of Hikvision cameras is not under review by Auckland Transport.
"Auckland Transport does not use Hikvision's facial recognition or licence plate recognition technology or any of its other tracking technology."
A spokesman for the Prime Minister's office said MBIE and AT's use of Hikvision cameras was "an operational issue".
A Bloomberg report, "China's Hikvision Has Probably Filmed You", notes that Hikvision's cameras are now used everywhere from American malls and army bases to the UK houses of Parliament.
Wrong people identified
There is a growing backlash against the technology.
Some see the Trump Administration's blacklist as a bargaining chip in its trade war with China.
But in parts of the US, broader privacy concerns about surveillance technology have also emerged.
Chinese makers of surveillance cameras and facial technology might stand accused of colluding with their company's security apparatus but, in the US, homegrown alternatives are accused of being simply not that good - leading to injustices.
On May 14, San Francisco became the first major US city to ban the use of facial recognition technology by police and other agencies after several incidents of suspects being incorrectly identified by the technology.
According to an AP report, studies have shown error rates in facial-analysis systems built by Amazon, IBM and Microsoft were far higher for darker-skinned women than lighter-skinned men.
Last year, New Zealand's largest supermarket company admitted it had rolled out facial recognition CCTV technology in some stores, sparking a wave of controversy that culminated in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressing concerns over the practice.
An Otago Daily Times report about a man mistakenly identified as a shoplifter at Centre City New World led to Foodstuffs NZ disclosing it had deployed facial recognition in some of its North Island stores.
Some of its South Island stores, including Centre City New World in Dunedin, use the locally developed Auror security system, designed to enable closer collaboration between police and retailers, but this system does not involve automatic facial recognition.
The Herald has asked the Prime Minister for an update on any steps that have been taken since.
Privacy Commissioner: Signage required
A spokesman for the Privacy Commissioner said he strongly encouraged any organisation considering using the technology to undertake a "privacy impact assessment" and urged anyone unhappy about having their face automatically identified to speak up.
"We would expect to see signage and messages informing customers that the technology is in use, and what their information will be used for," he said.
"If individuals feel their privacy has been breached by this technology, they should complain to the supermarket first. If they are unsatisfied with the outcome of that complaint, they can complain to our office.''