Pennsylvania Prosecutor Built A Surveillance Network Using Forfeiture Funds And Compromised Chinese Cameras

from the who-says-the-system-doesn't-work dept

A new report from Mike Wereschagin for The Caucus details the disturbing surveillance network that’s been set up around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania using a fortuitous combination of forfeiture funds and zero oversight. The camera network utilizes cameras made by blacklisted Chinese firms and appears to have no statutes or guidelines governing its use.

The entity behind this surveillance network isn’t one of the law enforcement agencies that patrol the area. Instead, this is the work of a local prosecutor who seems willing to ignore anything that resembles best practices for government surveillance.

The district attorney for Pennsylvania’s second-most-populous county has assembled a network of advanced surveillance cameras in and around Pittsburgh and has enlisted colleagues in four surrounding counties to extend its reach into their jurisdictions.

Unlike other law enforcement agencies that have deployed this technology, though, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. outsourced its monitoring to a private company, gave other police departments access to it with no written restrictions on how they can use it and purchased Chinese-made cameras that are so vulnerable to domestic and foreign hacking that the Department of Defense considers them a national security threat.

The cameras purchased by the DA’s office come from two Chinese manufacturers that have been blacklisted by the federal government because of their security flaws. Dahua Technology Co. and Hangzhou Digital Technology Co. provided the cameras used in Pittsburgh. As of August 13, federal installations are no longer allowed to purchase from these companies or utilize any already-purchased equipment. The cameras in use around Pittsburgh don’t belong to any federal agency, but that doesn’t eliminate the security threats posed by their ongoing use.

The DA’s spokesperson, Mike Manko, says the Chinese cameras that phone home aren’t a problem because, well, only random Pittsburgh residents (and their vehicles) are affected.

Hacking is “not a significant concern,” Manko wrote.

“We do have security protocols that would let us know of an intrusion, and other than being able to see the feeds of the cameras, the access to any type of information is extremely limited,” Manko wrote.

Yep. No big deal. Just foreign operatives watching US citizens via cameras these operatives sold to a US government agency. Hangzhou, the other camera provider for the DA’s camera network, is a subsidiary of China’s state-run China Electronics Technology Group.

The cameras already utilize license plate reader tech. The documents obtained via public records requests show these images are retained for up to six months. The DA’s office claims there’s been no breach of this system via its insecure cameras, but the hands-off approach the DA has taken to regulating use doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the office’s attention to detail.

Manko said access to the network is “limited, protected and subject to audit.” It’s unclear under what conditions, though. The Caucus requested copies of agreements governing the use of the cameras and, in response, Zappala’s office said none existed.

And, as if it wasn’t enough that the DA’s office doesn’t appear to care that Chinese operatives might be helping themselves to camera feeds, the DA’s office thinks adding facial recognition tech to the mix is the next step forward, starting with the possibly-compromised cameras already installed in local schools.

“Down the road is facial recognition,” Dick Skrinjar, a project manager in Zappala’s office, told the Downtown Clean + Safe Community Forum in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District in February.

“Any idea how many kids in public schools are on probation?” Skrinjar asked.

Two thousand, he told them.

“We have their pictures,” Skrinjar said. “We can put them in the system and restrict where these people go, and keep them out of areas they’re not supposed to be in.”

Well, I guess if you’re going to emulate Chinese-style surveillance tactics, it makes sense to use Chinese cameras. The DA’s spokesperson agreed that discussions with school administrators about facial recognition tech have taken place but nothing is in place at the moment. But it definitely sounds like when this tech is inevitably rolled out, it will be in schools first. According to the spokesperson, “no other use of facial recognition has been pursued.”

Pittsburgh students are going to be the DA’s lab rats for facial recognition tech. Keep that in mind once the statements about solving serious crimes or capturing dangerous criminals are made in defense of facial recognition rollouts by the DA or local law enforcement. Also keep in mind that asset forfeiture makes this sort of thing possible, giving the DA’s office money it can spend without having to run its plans past anyone else in the local government. This makes cobbling together a problematic surveillance system like the one in use here that much easier.

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Companies: dahua technology, hangzhou digital

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Comments on “Pennsylvania Prosecutor Built A Surveillance Network Using Forfeiture Funds And Compromised Chinese Cameras”

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20 Comments
Killer Gravy-Covered Fries says:

SO Techdirt is now agreeing that Chinese hardware is corrupted?

made by blacklisted Chinese firms

You blithely assert that in course of ranting, as if obvious, while other times hold that Huawei hardware shouldn’t be prohibited.

As always, you know the truth, but overlook it depending on which slant you’re taking in any given piece.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: SO Techdirt is now agreeing that Chinese hardware is corrupt

Techdirt appears to be agreeing that the hardware in question has been determined by a third-party security firm to be highly vulnerable to general hacking. This is shown by them citing a blog post from Refirm Labs wherein the author details the specific vulnerability within a common Duhua camera that was replicated in firmware in most products from Duhua Technologies, namely a firmware update mechanism that will authenticate any update sent to it. This is a particular and detailed threat.

As opposed to Huawei hardware which has no such threat detailed, only vague assertions that it might be compromised. Techdirt’s calls against the Huawei blacklist is that there is no evidence of a threat being presented, only vague concerns presented by an economic competitor.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Your own scans of Huawei tech turned up fuck all. Now I’m not saying China is politically clean, far from it, but how is this your main takeaway from the article, and NOT the fact that an American in law built his own private surveillance network using forfeiture funds?

Oh, right. You said nothing when Chris Dodd enthusiastically supported China’s Great Firewall system. Can’t fucking imagine why…

Secret Asian Man says:

Re: Re:

That’s just what warlords do, but there are often competing warlords and that’s where things get dangerous. But not to worry, as long as the Rule of Law and the institutions of government and society still command respect and are generally considered legitimate, warlords won’t be a problem. Warlords only step in when there are sharp divisions within a society as to who is the rightful ruler and by what rules he governs and the resulting turmoil allows anyone with the will to do so to simply claim to be the rightful ruler. Once that sort of thing happens, you know a society is on the verge of collapse.

That One Guy (profile) says:

'All they can do is unlock the door.' '... to your house.'

Hacking is “not a significant concern,” Manko wrote.

“We do have security protocols that would let us know of an intrusion, and other than being able to see the feeds of the cameras, the access to any type of information is extremely limited,” Manko wrote.

Can someone explain to this idiot why it’s important to have all your stuff secured, not just the innermost parts? If you have a known vulnerability that connects to other, rather more important systems like, oh say, police networks, then you are practically begging to be hacked.

ECA (profile) says:

Lots of problems with this..

1 Schools?

Unless the Parents Agree’d, they CANT..
What are the laws in Pen State about recording Video and conversation??
How long to retain the records??

2..Private property. Should be the local areas of Public housing, and neighborhoods.. And that would be under the constitution..BOTH state and federal.

And if they wish to keep this up..How about we install a few AROUND his home and all his locations he likes.. Including the police stations..
IMO./ the cameras in the Cop shops Should be Public access..

ANonmylous says:

Re: Lots of problems with this..

No, one huge problem with this: Where is the written authority for the District Attorney’s office to directly engage in criminal investigations? They are part of the Judiciary, not the Executive branch of local governments. There is no oversight because the Judicial branch doesn’t manage this kind of thing at all. This is an attempt to completely ignore the 4th-6th Amendments.

David says:

Well, this technology seems great

for limiting the damage serial suicide shooters do to our school children. The only problem with that is that suicide shooters have still not quite out worked the details of serial suicide, so the suicide sprees this nation’s school suffer under don’t benefit a whole lot from face detection technology being able to identify previous perpetrators.

So what exactly are we even talking about here?

Tanner Andrews (profile) says:

What Could Possibly Go Wrong

Puyt them in schools. History suggests this will include the locker rooms. A few bright observers will surely find these cameras and some blabber-mouth will spread the word.

If one of these is at the mayor’s daughter’s school, the Allegheny state’s attorney will have plenty of work, then, explaining why this was such a good idea.

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