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The Red Door of CCTV

CCTV Red Door

I am always amazed during my trips to China.  The number of cameras and digital video recorders being sold out of China today is mind-blowing when you consider the size of the industry just 12 years ago.  On my most recent trip, I visited 4 large CCTV manufacturers who produce a total of over 300,000 DVRs each month.  Granted, this is a global market, and not all of those DVRs are hitting US store shelves, websites, or security dealers’ install trucks.  However, it’s clear that China has become a force to be reckoned with in the US CCTV market.  Sure, Korea and Taiwan are still producing product, but the Chinese have volume and momentum on their side.  I estimate that over one million DVRs are coming into the USA each year, complete with Chinese software.

My concern is not with how many units are being installed in the US, but instead the fact that we are bringing in product that is wholly designed, developed, and manufactured in China.  None of the Intellectual Property is from the US.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not one of those China haters – in fact, I’ve come to love the Chinese people and their culture.  But given the political atmosphere in China, one might wonder what is really installed on these Digital Video Recorders.  How do we know that there is not some back door allowing Chinese manufacturers or the Chinese government the ability to log in and see live streaming video from devices they make and control?

In September of 2013, the US government banned all telecommunications equipment from Huawei from being installed in US government applications because of a concern that the Chinese government could listen in or collect network data without any knowledge or permission from their customers.  However, Huawei also owns a company called HI Silicon, whose chips have now become one of the most popular chips used in DVRs and CCTV cameras today.  If the US government is concerned about their network data being compromised, shouldn’t we also be concerned about who is looking at our live security cameras streams?   Who is deleting or saving video?   And who could be collecting information on our networks?

Major CCTV OEMs and resellers are flocking to China to buy low-cost DVRs and IP cameras to compete in a market that is becoming commoditized.  There are benefits to this, but the downside is that no thought is given to what software is installed on that hardware.

HIK Vision, one of the largest Chinese CCTV manufacturers, gets its primary funding from the Chinese government.  It’s an impressive operation with hundreds of engineers, from which some great, innovative products have resulted.  But should we be concerned that we are buying this CCTV equipment with software that is developed with no oversight and no way truly to know if these is something malicious or devious hidden within?

There is at least one known precedent for this: In 2008, researchers discovered that the Chinese version of Skype contained a surveillance system for monitoring conversations that contained certain politically-charged words (including “democracy”). The suspicion was that one of the Chinese creators of Tom-Skype may have been working with the Chinese police to collect information on users’ conversations.

China is not going to stop producing DVRs or cameras, nor should they – but we need to start asking questions, and more US companies need to take up the task of developing software in the USA.  Even if CCTV systems are based on low-cost Chinese hardware, USA-based software development is the safest bet to ensure that security video remains secure.

For the last 6 years, SAY Security has been developing CCTV software solutions based on low-cost Asian hardware.  It’s not that we think the original software is bad; we just don’t know how much we can trust it.  USA-based software development also brings a local level of control to the product.

The CCTV industry is becoming more driven by software and add-on features, and I believe that software developed in the USA is the best answer to that demand.  After all, the best software in the world is made right here in the USA.  Microsoft, Apple, and Google have no major international rivals; sure, they make the hardware in Asia, but the software is made here!  It’s highlighted right on the back of the iPhone – “Designed in the USA, assembled in China.”  So I challenge the major CCTV OEMs: Bring back software development to the USA.  We will be safer and better off for it.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Steve Spahr #

    Excellent questions. Curious though: Aren’t there software tools that will let you know what IP addresses the DVRs/NVRs/Cameras are connecting to?

    March 17, 2014
    • Jason Szuch #

      Yes, but how many people use them? I don’t think that the DVR’s or IP cameras are actively checking in with a host server, but what if one day they did. Or maybe once per year on that odd night when no one was watching. It’s the “what if” that is scary.

      March 17, 2014
  2. Pam Huck #

    Jason! You never cease to amaze me at how your mind works. You are such a forward thinker. All the issues you have questioned are so relevant. You need to get these to your senator or congressman.

    March 23, 2014
    • Hi There,

      I understand Washington has a few things in the works for Government applications, but everyone else will be on there on their own.

      March 23, 2014
  3. Hmm, I by no means thought about it that way. I do see your level however I think a lot of will disagree

    April 10, 2014

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