Canada

China-based chain says rows of surveillance cameras in Canadian restaurants for security, not spying

Haidilao, which has four Canadian outlets, strongly refuted the article by a Canadian journalist alleging video from the cameras was being sent back to China

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The photos posted online show rows of surveillance cameras, their apparent focus the dining area of Canadian restaurants owned by a popular China-based chain.

The company, Haidilao International Holding, says its video equipment is there to ensure everyone’s safety and security — not, as a recent report suggested, to track staff and customers on behalf of authorities in Beijing.

But the cameras, installed by a business whose home government employs surveillance pervasively, are sparking concern among Canadian critics of the People’s Republic, and interest from the federal privacy commissioner.

Haidilao may intend to use the equipment just for security purposes, said Ivy Li of Canadian Friends of Hong Kong. But Chinese law requires its companies to co-operate with security services if requested — and makes all firms subject to the controversial “social-credit” monitoring system, she noted.

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“The possibility that someone (in China) could take that data and use it, that is a concern,” said Li. “We have (Chinese) businesses here that operate directly subject to the corporate credit-score system. They become, whether wittingly or unwittingly, part of the Chinese security system.”

In fact, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service warned in a 2018 article on the social-credit system that “data can be collected on companies and individuals abroad, posing a challenge for countries not wishing to be part of a Chinese system of social control.”

The federal privacy commissioner’s office has not looked into the matter, but will “follow up” with Haidilao, said spokesman Vito Pilieci this week after being contacted by the National Post.

Meanwhile, Haidilao, which has four outlets in the Toronto and Vancouver areas, strongly refuted the article by a Canadian journalist and a military-intelligence veteran alleging video from the cameras was being sent back to China as part of the social-credit program.

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“There is no audio recording and no facial recognition function,” said Haidilao spokesman Yang Xibei. “The recorded video is stored on-site only and does not get transmitted or backed up to anywhere outside Canada. Haidilao Canada has no connection with China’s social credit program.”

The article, which quoted a manager of the Vancouver location as saying the two cameras per table were there to “people track” and “punish” errant employees, was defamatory, the firm charged. Haidilao abides by all applicable laws here, Yang said.

But freelance journalist Ina Mitchell and the recent article’s co-author, Scott McGregor, a former military intelligence officer and intelligence advisor to the RCMP, said they stand by their story. It was based on a formal, recorded interview with the restaurant manager, a follow-up call and “other testimony,” said Mitchell.

For security reasons, Yang said he could not comment on the quantity or location of the video gear. But photos on a website for the Markham, Ont., restaurant — some of which have now been removed — show what appear to be at least 25 cameras in the ceilings, about one per table below.

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This is beyond having CCTV going in and going out of a restaurant

Even if they are just meant to prevent theft and other crimes as the company maintains, that seems like “overkill,” said Cheuk Kwan, spokesman for the Toronto Association for Democracy in China.

“This is beyond having CCTV going in and going out of a restaurant,” he said. “This is people maybe holding hands under the table, or whatever they’re doing, and not wanting other people to find out.”

Citing the rise in anti-Asian hate incidents recently, Kwan stressed that the issue concerns a China-based chain, not restaurants run by Chinese Canadians.

B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner can’t comment on specific situations in case they become the subject of a complaint, said spokesman Noel Bovin. But the province’s Personal Information Protection Act requires businesses to obtain consent before collecting, using or disclosing personal information, he noted.

Overt video surveillance should only be used as a last resort after trying less intrusive options, says a commission document.

“Organizations need to consider whether video surveillance will achieve the intended purpose and whether the concerns are serious enough to warrant implementing this highly invasive technology.”

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With headquarters in Beijing, Haidilao International Holding Ltd. owns 935 restaurants from Australia to the U.S., cheerful places where diners cook meat and vegetables in pots of bubbling broth

“The recorded video is stored on-site only and does not get transmitted or backed up to anywhere outside Canada,” a spokesman for Haidilao says.
“The recorded video is stored on-site only and does not get transmitted or backed up to anywhere outside Canada,” a spokesman for Haidilao says. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

But it was born in a country where the government uses technology to monitor people on a massive scale. China employs an estimated 200 to 600 million closed-circuit cameras, producing eight of the 10 most surveillance-heavy cities in the world, according to the consumer research site Comparitech.

The omnipresent video is coupled with widespread use of facial recognition software. The People’s Daily tweeted in 2018 that the government’s “Skynet” facial-recognition system could scan China’s 1.4 billion people in a second.

Then there is the social-credit system Beijing is building, where citizens are given ratings based on their “trustworthiness,” with privileges like access to train tickets denied for those with too many demerits. Video and facial-recognition is expected to play a part, while private companies like Haidilao are already subject to a more advanced, parallel social credit system for corporations.

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The Canadian writers’ article in the Indian newspaper Sunday Guardian quoted a manager of Haidilao’s Vancouver restaurant as saying its cameras were part of social credit, used against staff who didn’t follow corporate standards and to people track.

The company’s B.C. operation did not respond to a phone message from the Post.

From corporate headquarters, Yang said the story was false and the employee misquoted. The company has hired lawyers to look into the matter, he said. The video equipment is to protect staff and customers from robbery, theft and vandalism, said Yang.

“Closed circuit camera systems are standard in almost every business directly serving the public, and there are video surveillance signs posted throughout the restaurant.”

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