One hundred cameras of the Chinese Hikvision monitor the workers of the Ministry of Culture

One hundred cameras of the Chinese Hikvision monitor the workers of the Ministry of Culture

The technology of the controversial company was purchased for the security system of the headquarters, where Minister Dario Franceschini also has his office. Wired's investigation

Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini (IPA, Luigi Mistrulli) More than one hundred cameras from a Chinese company will monitor corridors, entrances and offices of the Italian Ministry of Culture. This is the result of a plan launched in 2016 to strengthen the security of the Roman College complex, the headquarters of the dicastery, which in recent weeks has made the employees of the structure turn up their noses. Thanks to a request for access to the documents, Wired discovered that the electronic eyes guarding the building in the heart of Rome, where Minister Dario Franceschini and senior officials have their office, are branded Hikvision, a multinational in the video surveillance of the Dragon. It is one of the most important companies in the sector and at the same time among the most controversial due to its links with the Chinese state, which is a shareholder.

The company is the same company that supplied the video surveillance systems purchased by the Ministry of Justice to secure the wiretapping rooms of over one hundred Italian prosecutors, as revealed by Wired in April, a contract that has caused some political discontent. Hikvision has long been at the center of international scrutiny, both for reasons of national security and because of the provision of technology for the surveillance of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority living in the inner Chinese province of Xinjiang and against whom Beijing has long been launched a campaign of repression.

The US banned Hikvision from federal procurement in 2018 (and then in 2019 and 2020), while in the UK it is at the center of a dispute in parliament. Also in Italy, some parties, Lega in the lead, are pushing to encourage the use of European technologies or technologies from NATO countries, with the aim of making security certification and prevention of tampering with espionage purposes easier.

The heart of the ministry

The Roman College is the heart of the ministry of Culture. More than 500 workers pass through the entrances of the palace a short distance from the Pantheon every day, including the highest officials of the dicastery, the head of the cabinet and the minister himself. The building was built between 1582 and 1584 to house the school of the same name started by the founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignazio de Loyola. Over the centuries it has hosted, among others, the debates between Galileo Galilei and the Jesuit Paolo Segneri; the Wunderkammer by the Jesuit Athanasius Kirchner; a barracks; a high school (still present); the Royal Central Office of Meteorology; the first national council of the socialist party up to the Ministry of Culture.

In 2016 a feasibility study indicates the way to modernize the ministry's video surveillance system, also equipping it with a control room connected to the cameras by a LAN network.

The purchase passes through the agreement that the central for public purchasing, Consip, stipulates with Tim and Fastweb. Already on 10 October 2017, as Wired was able to verify through a request for access to the documents, the ministry is committed to the former state monopolist, who won the 6.3 million contract to supply the public offices of Emilia Romagna , Tuscany, Lazio, Marche, Abruzzo, Molise, Umbria and Sardinia. The purchase order arrives on January 16, 2018. The models are those of Hikvision, foreseen by the Consip contract.

The Roman College, seat of the Ministry of Culture (photo from Wikipedia, By karel291, CC BY 3.0, /index.php?curid=55781839)

Surveillance at the ministry

The contract stipulated by the Ministry of Culture (Mic) provides for the installation of 112 cameras between bullets (cylindrical-shaped models hooked to a mechanical arm that allows movement) to control two courtyards of the monumental complex, which border the Visconti high school and the church of Sant'Agnazio, and domes (the “domes”, which allow the electronic eye to rotate 360 ​​degrees) in the corridors of the offices. A control room with six workstations located on the ground floor of the complex, on the side of the entrance in via del Caravita, will manage it, where "the hardware and software platforms for managing the entire system will be located", reads the explanatory report obtained by Wired .

The models are branded Hikvision: 27 units of DS-2CD4635FWD-IZS (bullet) and 85 of DS- 2CD4535FWD-IZ (dome). Tim sells the former for € 291.2, while the latter for € 207.2, for a total of € 31,078.77 on a total contract of € 269,918.6 (which also includes other devices, installations, maintenance and construction works).

A Wired Tim informed that “he is completing the wiring of the video surveillance systems, carried out under the Consip convention of video surveillance systems (Vds1). The supply complies with the call for tenders and the testing is carried out by the ministry, which is also responsible for assessing compliance with the technical and operating requirements ".

Consip headquarters

The arm wrestling

The project took a few years to go through. Because in addition to installation, there is the authorization process. A tricky game when it comes to video surveillance. And even more delicate at the Ministry of Culture, where the news of cameras in the corridors caused the stomach ache of the workers. As reported by the newspaper Il Tempo, the project was the subject of a tug-of-war with the unions. "An agreement was never reached and the ministry proceeded after receiving the authorization of the Labor Inspectorate", explains Lilith Zulli, regional coordinator of the CGIL Public Service at the ministry.

In particular, a to get in the way was the unitary trade union representation, opposed to having controls in the corridors that workers often walk during the day, to have the practices endorsed by the officials. Zulli, however, observes that "the project is well structured and in accordance with the law, we cannot make any findings from the trade union point of view". It also responds to questions of "heritage control", given that in the complex there is also a branch of the Library of the history of art and archeology, in the Hall of the cruise, with 100 thousand precious volumes.

Nella illustrative report states that “each camera has, in any case, a shooting cone with a maximum angle which, upon specific request, can be restricted in order to avoid intercepting specific objects or places; similarly, the equipment envisaged by the project provides for the possibility of obscuring any sensitive points ". And the recorded images are kept for seven days before being deleted.

One of the Hikvision models

The privacy issue

On February 12, 2021 the Labor Inspectorate gave the green light on the project , as ascertained by Wired. Five years have passed since the feasibility study. The data protection impact assessment document (Dpia), dated March 2021 and obtained through a request for access to the documents, presents specific reassurances. "Personal data refers to images without sound without any type of profiling or automatic processing aimed at identifying the individuals captured", it reads.

It is an important clarification and at the same time the recognition of having purchased devices very sophisticated to use only the simplest (and easiest to find on the market) functions. In fact, the Hikvision cameras chosen by Consip include technologies that can recognize if someone crosses a pre-established border (line crossing) or if there is an abandoned bag. They also allow you to detect faces, count objects and understand if they have been added or moved. All functions which, according to the Dpia, should remain dormant, despite having been paid for. Contacted by Wired, the Mic, which provided most of the documents requested with the request for access to the records (and not others for alleged security reasons), did not provide a comment on the matter.

The headquarters of Hikvision

A controversial name

A turnover of 8.23 ​​billion euros (63.5 billion yuan, at the exchange rate of 27 July) in 2020, a year-over-year growth of 10.14% and a profit net of 1.7 billion euros (13.39 billion yuan, + 7.82%) make Hikvision the global giant of video surveillance technologies. However, this very primacy made it - ironically - a special guard, at least in the West.

Hikvision is owned by the Chinese state, to which it is linked by a bond of dependence and control that involves the services secrets of Beijing, and its apparatuses have been used in the province of Xinjiang as part of the repression against the Muslim Uyghur minority. Reason that prompted a group of UK parliamentarians to ask their government to take a clear stance against the humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang, which also includes a ban on Hikvision technologies.

(photo: Getty Images )

Inside the Public Prosecutors

But also in Italy there have been voices against their use. Just in the period in which the United States banned Hikvision cameras, a Wired investigation revealed that the Italian Ministry of Justice had purchased 1,105, through the Consip procedure, to secure the accesses to the wiretapping rooms of 134 Public Prosecutors Italian, or the super-protected rooms where lawyers and prosecutors can consult audio and video material related to the investigations.

The fact reveals a regulatory lightness, which also pays for the delay in the definitive establishment of the National and Assessment and Certification Center (Cvcn), the team of experts called to ascertain the reliability of hardware and software purchased for crucial contracts for national security that should have been initially established within the Ministry of Economic Development (as revealed by the web page of the structure, not still updated) and has now been moved under the hat of the nascent Cyb Agency National ersecurity.

"We cannot be exposed to similar technological risks for the national interest - Antonio Zennaro, deputy of the League and member of the Finance Committee, commented to Formiche. An in-depth analysis is necessary, in particular on purchases from countries that are not our allies. And also a review of the tender procedures ", with the aim, in Italy and in Europe, of" seriously incentivising the realities of the sectors that are within the golden power perimeter to bridge the technological gap quickly ".

Contacted by Wired, Hikvision replied that the technologies for the recognition of minorities "were not focused on a single ethnic group" and that "this feature was removed via a firmware update in 2018 and is no longer available in products current ". He also previously told Wired: "As a manufacturing company that does not sell directly to end customers in Italy, we do not supervise the operation of our products, but we can ensure that our cameras are designed to protect communities and property".

(Photo by GREG BAKER / AFP via Getty Images)

Cybersecurity and diplomacy

As the construction site approaches completion, the presence of Hikvision cameras in a ministry raises two questions. First: what will happen when the national cyber perimeter, the set of rules to raise IT protections on critical infrastructures and sensitive targets in Italy, is complete? At the moment in Italy the approach has been of no preventive stop but, along the lines of what was done with 5G, to proceed in the event with a specific investigation on individual components and contracts. But if this is true for new contracts, there is little to be done for the previous one, since the powers of the CVCN for now do not have retroactive effect.

The second question is of a political nature. In Great Britain, the proposed blockade of Hikvision is supported by reasons of international diplomacy - protesting against the repression of the Uighurs by China - rather than by reasons of cybersecurity. Italy, which under the first government led by Giuseppe Conte had come considerably closer to Beijing, has recovered an Atlantic position with the executive of Mario Draghi. Washington's push to isolate the Dragon, touching it in economic interests, is in the open and it is necessary to understand how it will translate into Rome's moves. What is certain is that the new tender launched by Consip for video surveillance, which should replace the one that brought dozens of containers of Hikvision cameras to Italy, is at stake. The last act, a list of admitted and excluded, dates back to March last year.

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