Tech Stores Still Selling Chinese Cameras Amid Controversy in Netherlands

February 17th 2022. Despite reports that have emerged concerning the usage of Chinese security cameras all around the Netherlands, tech stores in Groningen continue to sell them. Those reports suggest there is a risk of a backdoor hack in the camera software, which would enable the Chinese government to spy on the country’s most kept secrets.

As reported by NOS and research platform Follow The Money, these cameras are being purchased by municipalities, the police and other governmental institutions. NOS’ report showed there were at least 134 cameras around The Hague, with many in the proximity of governmental buildings, notably the Permanent Court of Arbitration. In Groningen, we found 329 Hikvision cameras connected to the internet.

Hikvision headquarters in Hangzhou (Source: Wiki Commons)

Before reports came out in the Netherlands, the United States had already made these Chinese-produced cameras illegal all around the country. A small number of Dutch municipalities have followed suit by phasing out the usage of Hikvision and Dahua as surveillance in their respective areas. With these reports, the Dutch government might reconsider its general policy. The biggest customer however is the public, who bring these cameras to their homes.

While many imagine security cameras to be simply big CCTV-like equipment, there is a far greater variety than you would think. The products range from doorbell monitors, cameras that keep an eye on rooms in your house in case of burglary, and also baby monitors. This begs the question of how much a hacker, whether as a lone wolf or with a government, could access people’s private lives.

We checked with tech retail stores in Groningen whether they had decided to pull products off the shelves amid the reports. We found four stores, two of which replied to our requests. CCTV Noord and Media Markt sell these cameras too, but were not available for comment.

Media Markt in Groningen

One store told us that they had no particular thoughts about this issue. “It looks like a nice story, but all they say is ‘possibly’ and that they (hackers) could use, but they don’t do that”, the store owner told us. He added that there is no proof so far that a back door exists and that it was all speculation. He did not seem more concerned for people’s security following the reports.

The owner of Observe & Protect in the south of Assen sang to the same tune. He does not believe the fact that this equipment was specifically Chinese changed anything. “A camera, whether it is Chinese, Iranian, Israeli or Russian, could have potential back doors”, he told us.

He is concerned for people’s privacy. “You have to ask yourself how important is it that what is seen on a camera is not permitted to go outside”, he specified. “If you do not hook up the camera to the internet, and you only use it as a closed camera circuit, nobody, even the Chinese government, will be able to connect to those cameras.”

We also talked to Dr. Zeki Erkin, a professor in the Cyber Security Group at Delft University of Technology. He thinks the issue also lies in education, as the public, is often unaware of how insecure their cameras are. “They come from China, they are cheap and very often have no security component or secure communications. It is cheaper without security. They can be hacked”, he told us.

“Whether it has a Chinese or Israeli chip inside, there is always the possibility of espionage”

To remedy this issue, other than added legislation or technological protection, Dr. Erkin suggested a stronger emphasis on informing the public in regards to their purchases. “Security for the public is very important. They need to know that if they buy something cheap, it might not be secure. There should be some sort of label to say whether it is secure”, he explained. While it will take time to solve these issues, there are certainly pathways in order to make home security a lot safer.

The owner of Observe and Protect hopes that people understand that any tech equipment can be hacked, as long as it is connected to the internet: “Whether it has a Chinese or Israeli chip inside, there is always the possibility of espionage.”

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