Local security company discovers Uyghur-targeting CCTV software

The Australian company which found the software has called on other security businesses to decide which side of history they want to be on.

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Dahua have facial recognition software installed on their security cameras. Photo: Ervins Strauhmanis (CC BY 2.0.)

In his office in Matraville near Sydney in late 2020, Daniel Lewkovitz – CEO of Calamity Monitoring – was using a platform called SmartPSS on his desktop computer to look through footage to help police in a criminal matter.

Mr Lewkovitz decided to look deeper into the software’s coding, only to discover something was not quite right.

It’s a given when working in the security industry that you’re going to come across weird or strange things, but finding software programming that actively discriminates against and targets a racial minority was way beyond what Mr Lewkovitz ever thought he would find.

You could trigger an alert based on race…it actually broke down the races into black, white, yellow, and Uyghur.”

— Daniel Lewkovitz, CEO of Calamity Monitoring

“While I was looking through some of the software I came across – very very deep in the settings – a configuration option where you could trigger an alert based on race,” Mr Lewkovitz explains.

“I had never seen this before in any CCTV software,” he said.

“When I saw this I really couldn’t believe my own eyes.”

Mr Lewkovitz sent this information to an organisation called IPVM who are an independent body that reviews and reports on CCTV technology.

“They didn’t believe it either until they started looking and nearly fell off their chairs,” he said, adding that IPVM managed to get a hold of the source code and discovered that “it actually broke down the races into black, white, yellow, and Uyghur.”

Mr Lewkovitz was shocked with his findings. 

“It left absolutely no doubt in my mind the purpose of this technology and its application which essentially was carrying out human rights abuse against a very persecuted minority which are currently the victims of genocide,” he said.

“When I saw this my blood turned cold.”

He took action straight away.

“Immediately at that point I went to my staff and said we want no part of this, we are not using this technology anymore.”

Dahua Technology is a partially state-owned traded company based in China, which sells video surveillance products and services and has a market capitalisation of more than 6 billion dollars.

“Just to be clear – this is not some small company that’s picked up Chinese government contracts. This is one of the world’s largest CCTV companies,” Mr Lewkovitz said.

“It now has Chinese state ownership as well – this is the technology that you would find at government buildings, at everything from homes to businesses to airports right around the world. This is a multimillion-dollar provider, for them to act in this way is unconscionable and isn’t something I wanted to be a part of.”

The U.S has blacklisted Dahua over concerns about its role in human rights violations, effectively blocking it and other blacklisted entities from purchasing American products.

“You talk about making a difference in the world and when an Australian security company manages to spot something that manages to find its way to American democracy I think that’s pretty good,” Mr Lewkovitz said.

“I just hope that this causes other people to sit up and pay attention.”

Mr Lewkovitz believes it’s important that other companies pay attention to what’s going on.

“I do think it’s important that other security providers decide which side of history they want to be on because they can continue to sell the cheap products or they can actually decide if they want to take a moral stand against human rights abuses,” he said.

Since discovering the coding, Mr Lewkovitz has had conversations with Australian Uyghur communities.

“I did get contacted by associations of Uyghurs who were tremendously grateful for what we did,” he said.

After finding the option in Dahua’s security cameras that could discriminate based on race via facial recognition technology, Calamity Monitoring decided to take a large financial hit and part ways with the Chinese company.

Mr Lewkovitz does not regret his decision.

“What we have been doing has not been cheap, but it was the right thing to do and I am very very proud of what Calamity has done,” he says.

“I really hope other people follow in our footsteps and choose to do the right thing and choose not to support companies that are actively facilitating human rights abuse, all the way up to genocide – that’s not okay.”