Report: U.S. Military Purchased Sanctioned Chinese Video Surveillance Equipment

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WASHINGTON D.C. — Chinese technology firms have been hit with a host of restrictions and bans by the U.S. government over the past several years. Firms such as Hikvision, Dahua and Huawei have been blacklisted and even deemed a national security threat by the FCC.

In August 2019, the National Defense Authorization Act was put into effect to prohibit federal agencies from purchasing or obtaining telecommunications and video surveillance equipment from five Chinese companies, including Hikvision and Dahua. Yet numerous federal agencies have since purchased equipment manufactured by the banned firms, according to a report from The Intercept.

The details around the purchases are complicated. The agencies purchased blacklisted hardware through a network of American resellers that claimed the camera systems were in compliance with the sanctions, according to the Intercept.

The resellers didn’t sell surveillance cameras that were branded “Hikvision” or “Dahua,” but different brands that use the aforementioned Chinese companies as OEMs.

Public purchase records show that since the sanctions were put in place, the Air Force, Army, Navy, Veterans Affairs, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense all purchased camera systems containing or consisting of hardware that was determined to have originally been manufactured by Dahua or Hikvision and sold under another brand, according to a joint investigation with IPVM.

IPVM visually compared both hardware and software of the camera systems, as well as physical disassembled cameras in some instances.

GSA Advantage, a marketplace for federal vendors to sell their wares to the government online, still shows listings for cameras available for purchase that are originally manufactured by Dahua and Hikvision under different names.

GSA spokesperson Kim Armeni told The Intercept in an email that GSA contractors are required to comply with the provisions of the Federal Acquisition Regulation, or FAR, which provides rules for government purchases and contracting practices and was updated in 2019 to implement the NDAA’s Hikvision and Dahua ban.

Armeni told The Intercept that “GSA has multiple means to vet vendors and products sold on GSA Advantage,” though she did not elaborate on these methods.

The Intercept reached out to the federal customers that purchased the banned equipment but only heard back from two.

The Army, which records show purchased a Dahua DVR resold by Global Data Center under the Amcrest brand name in September 2020, told The Intercept it relies on attestations by its vendors.

“Companies that propose on federal contracts are required to assert their compliance with various Federal Acquisition Regulation and Defense supplement provisions and clauses,” Army spokesperson Richard Levine wrote in an email. “This piece of equipment, which was purchased through the GSA website, is a DVR used to store video footage of fish at the Mill Creek Project near Walla Walla, Washington. The team that purchased it observed that neither AMCREST nor GDC Inc. were listed as prohibited companies, and saw no indication that they may have been associated with any prohibited companies.”

An Amcrest representative told The Intercept in an email that “Amcrest cameras and security products are conceptualized and designed by Amcrest in Houston, TX,” and that “Amcrest works with various contract manufacturers from around the world (Mexico and China) to complete the design, assembly, and physical manufacturing processes.”

The Intercept reached out to Global Data Center and received a response from Vice President Chris Davis, who stated, “We had and have no wrongdoing to do with this matter [sic]. We had no knowledge that Amcrest or Bosch were selling and shipping anything other than the exact Amcrest or Bosch products they advertised and sold,” adding that “If they then, on their own, shipped banned third party products, this was not done with our knowledge, consent or approval. This was unbeknownst to us and anyone else that may have bought these products.”

Bosch spokesperson Anne Insero told The Intercept that “Global Data Center purchased the video recording products through distributors, as Bosch does not have a direct purchase relationship with the company,” and added “We have been transparent with any customer inquiries related to NDAA compliance.” Amcrest did not reply to a request for comment on Global Data Center’s claim.

Records show that the Air Force bought Dahua surveillance cameras and a Hikvision security camera system. Spokesperson Capt. Joshua Benedetti told The Intercept that the camera purchases were made under the purview of the Army and that the camera system had been acquired before the Federal Acquisition Regulation rule banning such a purchase went into effect.

However, records show a transaction date more than a month after the ban was implemented. When The Intercept asked about this discrepancy, Benedetti said he would investigate but did not provide an update in time for the report’s publication.

These purchases bring a significant issue to light. If federal agencies aren’t doing their due diligence with the surveillance equipment they are purchasing, and resellers are allegedly oblivious of the true origin of the products they are selling, who will be able to properly enforce the NDAA?

Manufacturers have stepped up their game, as we have seen more and more “NDAA-compliant” cameras released in the last year. The onus is now on resellers to sell their wares responsibly and for federal agencies to be more aware of where their technology is being sourced from.

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