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Ukraine’s security service says Russia can hack certain security cameras for the purpose of gathering intelligence, which can be used to carry out attacks on its western neighbor. (file photo)
Ukraine’s security service says Russia can hack certain security cameras for the purpose of gathering intelligence, which can be used to carry out attacks on its western neighbor. (file photo)

KYIV – As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine nears the two-year mark, hundreds of thousands of Chinese-made Hikvision and Dahua video-surveillance cameras, used by government-run security systems, residences, and private companies throughout Ukraine, heighten the risks of attacks by the Russian military, Ukrainian digital-security experts and government officials fear.

When Russian missiles struck Kyiv in a January 2 attack that killed at least three people, two ordinary outdoor CCTV cameras – one for a condominium, the other for a parking lot -- helped guide their way, the State Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) claims.

A heavily damaged building in Kyiv which was hit by a missile on January 2 that may have been guided by CCTV cameras.
A heavily damaged building in Kyiv which was hit by a missile on January 2 that may have been guided by CCTV cameras.

After hacking the cameras, Russian intelligence used them “to spy on the Defense Forces in the capital” and to record images of “critical infrastructure facilities,” according to the SBU.

One of those cameras was a 2016 Chinese-made Hikvision device, a law enforcement official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject told Schemes, the investigative unit of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.

"Such cameras are usually just connected to the Internet and are already relatively outdated -- that is, with software that has not been updated for a long time and has many known vulnerabilities,” said Serhiy Denysenko, executive director of the Ukrainian information-security company CyberLab’s Digital Forensics Laboratory.

Information security specialist Serhiy Denysenko (left) with Schemes journalist Kyrylo Ovsyaniy.
Information security specialist Serhiy Denysenko (left) with Schemes journalist Kyrylo Ovsyaniy.

Manufacturers’ “basic” camera software means that “hackers -- or, in this case, the Russian special services – who are scanning the Internet can find this camera and gain access to it," Denysenko said.

To test the SBU’s claims, a Digital Forensics Laboratory specialist hacked into a 2015 Hikvision CCTV camera in about 15 minutes.

From 2014 to 2022, three Ukrainian companies imported over 875,000 CCTV cameras and other devices related to video surveillance made by Hikvision, and a single company imported nearly 1.1 million cameras and other devices related to video surveillance made by Dahua, according to data from the import-export database ImportGenius.

Other companies also imported smaller numbers of devices made by Hikvision and Dahua, which dominate the world video-surveillance market and rank as Ukraine’s most frequently imported CCTV cameras.

A specialist was able hack into a 2015 Hikvision CCTV camera within 15 minutes.
A specialist was able hack into a 2015 Hikvision CCTV camera within 15 minutes.

They also rank among the world’s most controversial cameras -- in 2022, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission prohibited future authorizations for the import or sale of Hikvision and Dahua “communications equipment” as “an unacceptable risk to national security.” Australia, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and other countries have also imposed bans or restrictions on the cameras’ use.

Such regulations do not exist in Ukraine, though in 2023 it named both Hikvision and Dahua Technology “international sponsors of war” for tax payments to Moscow and sales of equipment that have military applications.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson told Reuters on February 1 that China “firmly opposes” the inclusion of 14 Chinese companies on that list, and “demands that Ukraine immediately correct its mistakes and eliminate negative impacts."

It did not address the issue of potential consequences from the hacking of Chinese CCTV cameras.

Vulnerable To Hacking

Hikvision and Dahua cameras and software account for 74 percent of the CCTV systems used in Ukraine’s national video-surveillance system for roads, streets, parks, apartment buildings, and other public spaces, Bezpechne Misto (Safe City), according to the Interior Ministry.

Another 24,000 Hikvision and Dahua cameras are used in similar public surveillance systems, the Interior Ministry told Schemes in response to a query.

Russian-supplied TRASSIR video surveillance systems -- which, as Schemes reported in December, have been used at the shuttered Chernobyl nuclear power plant as well as several Ukrainian cities and sensitive facilities such as the Administration of Sea Ports of Ukraine in Odesa -- in many cases use Hikvision cameras, though the software is TRASSIR's own.

Schemes asked President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office, the cabinet of ministers, the National Security and Defense Council, and the SBU whether they believe these cameras pose a security risk and whether Kyiv plans to remove the devices from Ukraine. None has responded.

Experiments run for Schemes by the Digital Forensics Laboratory and the Digital Security Laboratory, a Kyiv NGO, indicated that Hikvision and Dahua cameras are vulnerable to hacking and that they send encrypted data to servers controlled by state-run or partly state-run Chinese companies.

A 2015 Hikvision camera accepted the easily hackable password “1234567890” as a login. A 2023 Hikvision model required a more complex password with symbols, but sent some encrypted user and registration data to a server in China owned by ChinaNet, a state-owned Internet service provider.

A 2019 Dahua camera, even when its cloud-server connection was switched off, still sent encrypted information, including the user’s login and password, to cloud servers in Germany run by China’s uCloud Information Technology, a partly state-owned company, and the private U.S. firm Zenlayer.

The security of CCTV transfers depends on the manufacturer, the connection with the server, and “who can use this information and how,” said Digital Security Laboratory expert Ivan Antonyuk. “And here’s the question: Do you trust the Chinese developer or not?"

Digital security expert Ivan Antonyuk (left) talks to Schemes journalist Kyrylo Ovsyaniy.
Digital security expert Ivan Antonyuk (left) talks to Schemes journalist Kyrylo Ovsyaniy.

Though the information is encrypted, “decoding such information will not pose a problem for the manufacturer and developer of these cameras,” Denysenko emphasized.

"Our experts are convinced that when using such a service, access to the cameras can be easily obtained by the manufacturer's representatives if necessary,” he said. “Also, taking into account the current relations between China and Russia, this may carry certain security risks.”

Schemes did not find direct evidence that China transferred images from Chinese CCTV cameras in Ukraine to the Russian military, but the legal framework exists for such transfers.

China, whose ties with Russia are described by both countries as a “no limits” strategic partnership, does not publicly support Russia’s war against Ukraine.

'Powerless To Protect Users'

China’s national intelligence law stipulates that companies hand data over to the government if needed for security reasons. Beijing has “essentially unfettered” access to China’s Internet servers, CPO Magazine, a Singaporean website that tracks data privacy, commented.

“Chinese companies are powerless to protect users from digital rights violations by one of the most powerful -- and unaccountable -- governments in the world,” researchers for Ranking Digital Rights, an international project by the Washington-based think tank New America, wrote in 2020.

Hikvision’s largest shareholder, with 36.35 percent according to the company’s website, is the China Electronics Technology HIK Group, which is a full subsidiary of the state-run China Electronic Technology Corporation Group. That firm, known as CETC, lists on its website its contributions to China’s defense industry, including “electronic warfare” and UAVs, or drones.

Dahua Technology also has a significant government shareholder: The state-owned China Mobile, a telecommunications firm, owns roughly 9.5 percent of the company. Dahua has said that China Mobile does not have “operational control” or “undue influence over its decision making.”

Devices made by Hikvision and Dahua dominate the world video-surveillance market and rank as Ukraine’s most frequently imported CCTV cameras.
Devices made by Hikvision and Dahua dominate the world video-surveillance market and rank as Ukraine’s most frequently imported CCTV cameras.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Defense designated both Dahua and Hikvision, as well as their state-owned co-owners China Mobile and CETC, as “Chinese military companies” -- corporations whose technical skills the Chinese military uses.

A July 2023 report from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence found that, despite international sanctions and export restrictions, China “is providing some dual-use technology that Moscow’s military uses to continue the war in Ukraine.”

Intelligence sharing also makes up part of China and Russia’s 2021-2025 Road Map to Military Cooperation, the Congressional Research Service noted.

Schemes contacted Hikvision and Dahua about the security of their cameras in Ukraine and about whether the companies cooperate with Russia, but has not received a response.

The U.S. subsidiary of Dahua Technology, however, claimed in July 2023 that the tech giant only sends “peripheral products and accessories” to Russia and that “none of our products globally are currently designed for military use.”

The SBU said on January 2 that it has blocked more than 10,000 CCTV cameras in Ukraine since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.

Responding to a query from Schemes in January, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said that it “does not recommend or approve” purchases of Hikvision and Dahua CCTV cameras and is seeking to ensure that those used in government-controlled video-surveillance systems are replaced.

According to Ukraine’s public-procurement database Prozorro, some government bodies, such as the Kyiv region’s Zolochiv village council, started breaking contracts for the cameras, citing security concerns after Hikvision and Dahua were named “international sponsors of war.”

Existing government-run surveillance systems that use Hikvision and Dahua cameras were deliberately placed “in a closed local network” without access to “the public Internet” in order "to prevent the risks of information leakage” to China, the Interior Ministry said.

The ministry has proposed a bill for a “unified” public CCTV system that would function with Ukrainian and Israeli-made software, but it has not yet come to a vote.

Written by Elizabeth Owen based on reporting by Kyrylo Ovsyaniy of Schemes
Soldiers from Pakistan and China after joint military exercises in Punjab Province. (file photo)
Soldiers from Pakistan and China after joint military exercises in Punjab Province. (file photo)

In elections being closely watched by China, Pakistanis are heading to the polls in a tight race defined by a teetering economy and growing security risks that could shape the future for billions of dollars of Chinese infrastructure projects for their country.

“Beijing has a lot at stake here,” Michael Kugelman, the director of the Wilson Center's South Asia Institute, told RFE/RL. “China wants more stability in this relationship and in Pakistan as a whole, but there’s no guarantee that this election can deliver that.”

The February 8 vote in Pakistan takes place amid rising inflation and a weak currency, along with an escalating terrorism problem and simmering tensions with three of the South Asian country’s four neighbors. The crucial parliamentary elections also come amid intense political polarization after former Prime Minister Imran Khan was imprisoned on the eve of the vote.

With Pakistan becoming increasingly unstable, Beijing -- who has become one of Islamabad’s most important allies -- is worried about the future of its investments in the country of some 231 million people and ensuring the safety of Chinese workers who have increasingly come under deadly attacks.

Security officials examine a car following a gun attack on the vehicle, which was carrying Chinese nationals in the Pakistani port city of Karachi in 2021.
Security officials examine a car following a gun attack on the vehicle, which was carrying Chinese nationals in the Pakistani port city of Karachi in 2021.

While China is a vital economic lifeline for Pakistan, the South Asian country also serves as a strategic pillar for Beijing’s own ambitions by providing vital trade links to the Middle East through the Arabian Sea.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a collection of road, rail, energy, and other infrastructure projects worth more than $50 billion, has been a flagship within Beijing’s globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but political upheaval and security setbacks in Pakistan have seen the venture slow down and even stall in recent years.

Looking to breathe new life into CPEC, experts say Beijing would prefer a government led by Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who is currently the frontrunner from the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN).

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (file photo)
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (file photo)

“CPEC has lost momentum due to a reluctance from Beijing to invest over security concerns, plus Pakistan’s overall poor economic situation and China’s own slowdown,” said Kugelman. “China wants to get CPEC going again and Sharif is seen as someone who will work with them to that goal.”

A Tense Election

While China has a vested interest in the upcoming vote, Beijing also has a strong relationship with Pakistan’s influential military that Kugelman says gives it a sense of continuity amid the upheaval of the country’s electoral politics.

According to the global democracy watchdog Freedom House, Pakistan’s electoral process is considered “partly free.” While it holds regular elections, the country operates under a “hybrid rule” between the military and civilian government, and no elected prime minister has completed a full five-year term in the country’s history.

Looking at the February 8 contest, three major candidates announced plans to run in the parliamentary elections in the hopes of leading the next government as prime minister -- but only two are eligible.

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Sharif, whose brother Shehbaz led the most recent coalition before acaretaker government took over in August, is seen as most likely to head the next government. A three-time former prime minister who recently returned from exile in the United Kingdom -- where he fled in 2019 after losing support from Pakistan’s omnipotent military and being charged with corruption. Experts say he’s since mended ties with the military and now has its backing.

Another top candidate is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 35-year-old son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who represents the center-left Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). A former foreign minister, polls show Bhutto Zardari as unlikely to lead Pakistan’s next government, but he could act as kingmaker in parliament helping decide who becomes prime minister.

Although shown in polls as Pakistan’s most-popular politician, Khan is not on the ballot.

His term ended with a vote of no confidence after he lost the support of the military in 2022. He was arrested and sentenced to prison on corruption charges, a move that his supporters say is politically motivated. Islamabad’s electoral commission has banned Khan and many other candidates from his Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party from politics.

But while the PTI has been kept off the ballot, his supporters can still vote for Khan loyalists who are running as independents.

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This has prompted accusations that the military is interfering and raised concern that the results of the vote will not be respected. A recent survey conducted by Gallup found that some 70 percent of Pakistanis lack confidence in the integrity of their elections, which the agency said “ties previous highs” but “represents a significant regression in recent years.”

A Preferred Candidate?

Against this backdrop, China is seen as favoring Sharif as its preferred candidate to lead the next government.

The launch of CPEC overlapped with Sharif’s third term in office and his government forged closer ties with China as Beijing launched a wide slate of ambitious infrastructure projects across the country.

While CPEC grew into a centerpiece of the BRI -- viewed by many analysts as a strategic project aimed at building China’s global influence -- the investments quickly became intertwined with Pakistani politics.

Filippo Boni, a senior lecturer at the Open University in Britain who studies CPEC, says that Sharif directed the massive venture toward the Sindh and Punjab provinces in order to boost his party’s prospects during elections by providing investment to the politically important regions.

Similarly, he says Sharif pushed for CPEC’s early investments to go toward energy projects in the hope that ending the country’s electricity shortages could improve his reelection bid in 2018.

“Sharif and his brother were key figures for helping turn CPEC into a flagship for China,” Boni told RFE/RL. “The prospects of new projects being added to CPEC looks slim today, but with more trusted civilian leadership in place, maybe some of that could be reconsidered.”

When Khan succeeded Sharif in 2018, he expressed initial suspicion of BRI and CPEC, and raised concerns about the long-term implications of becoming too dependent on China. Khan’s government was critical of the preferential tax breaks given to Chinese companies and members of his cabinet even called for a pause on Chinese investment into the country.

Then-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan reviews a guard of honor during a welcome ceremony in Beijing during a visit to China in 2019.
Then-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan reviews a guard of honor during a welcome ceremony in Beijing during a visit to China in 2019.

Khan would later temper his criticism of CPEC and use the venture to shore up his own political base, choosing to establish a special economic zone in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province despite Beijing preferring different locations and feasibility studies showing other areas would perform better.

Despite the potential of CPEC, many projects have fallen behind schedule or so far failed to deliver on the promised results. This has led to the Pakistani military taking greater control through the 2019 creation of the CPEC Authority -- a government body authorized to oversee BRI projects in Pakistan -- and Islamabad is looking to cede further authority to the military to implement CPEC.

Khan’s tenure also saw a rise in attacks on Chinese personnel and interests, which Beijing became increasingly worried about and expressed concern to Islamabad that not enough was being done to protect its citizens in Pakistan.

“Khan’s early moves unsettled China and, even though they were walked back, this wasn’t forgotten in Beijing,” said Kugelman. “Khan is a populist who the Chinese see as unpredictable. Sharif, on the other hand, rarely asked questions or placed demands on Beijing.”

Looking For A Future

The elections offer little hope for near-term political stability, experts say, and Pakistan will continue to grapple with the political, economic, and security threats it's currently facing.

Boni says security threats in Pakistan, particularly over its own citizens, are one of Beijing’s top concerns moving forward and, along with the country’s unstable economic situation, could keep CPEC on the backburner.

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When caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul-Haq Kakar met with President Xi Jinping in China in October, he pushed for new investments. Xi responded by urging Pakistan to first take more steps to protect Chinese organizations and personnel working in the country.

“No matter who wins the elections, it’s going to be an uphill battle to manage the economy and deal with security threats,” Boni said.

He adds that Beijing continues to deepen ties with Pakistan’s military through new arms deals and military exercises, including large-scale naval exercises in November. China has also looked to prop up Pakistan with billions of dollars in economic aid in the last year.

“New civilian leadership could help stop [CPEC’s] slowdown, but there’s so much uncertainty for China,” Boni said. “The relationship with the military provides continuity, but it will take more to recalibrate the CPEC.”

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China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this biweekly dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

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