This article was updated on 8/22/2022 to make available meeting agenda files from the Town of Smithsburg’s website which appear to be broken links. The reason for these links being broken is unknown.
UPDATE 8/23/22: The Town of Smithsburg has accepted the vendor’s retraction of their proposal, and will evaluate a new proposal or send the camera system out for RFP at the September 6th Council Meeting. This article was also updated to change the main graphic.
SMITHSBURG, MD News (8/19/2022) – Here at RFHC we often get requests for investigative journalism of local topics. We typically turn these requests down, due to several factors. However, recent events have given us pause and it might be time to reconsider.
Most importantly, we at RFHC try to be a positive voice for the community. We want to shine a light on the good things that are happening locally in your own back yard. We want to make you feel good about everything going on, and get involved!
Until recently, we’ve felt good about turning down every investigative story people send us, because we were confident in other news media covering it. But lately, we’ve seen a few things that give us pause.
Specifically, we’ve learned of an incident where the Town of Smithsburg openly worked during a council meeting to find “creative solutions” to bypass their town charter and purchase Dahua security cameras which have been banned from usage by the Federal Government and even sanctioned for human rights violations. This purchase passed with a 3-to-2 vote on August 9th’s council meeting without sending the purchase contract out for competitive bid.
“I voted no to this company and stand by my opposition,” stated Councilman Roberto Gonzalez, when asked for quote by RFHC.
Specifications for the Dahua cameras can be obtained from the June 28 and July 26 meeting agendas. These cameras include audio and video recording capabilities, as well as object recognition such as people or vehicles.
Editor’s note: The above links to meeting agendas hosted on the Town of Smithsburg’s website appear to no longer function. This article was updated on 8/22/2022 to add the following download links to both agendas. The reason for these links being broken is unknown.
Even more concerning, the Dahua cameras are not only banned for usage by the Federal Government, but appear to be banned from being funded through Federal grants. The University of Maryland has published what they believe is a comprehensive list of prohibited companies.
Per 2 CFR 200.216(a)(3)(i), Recipients and subrecipients are prohibited from obligating or expending loan or grant funds to Enter into a contract (or extend or renew a contract) to procure or obtain equipment, services, or systems that uses covered telecommunications equipment or services as a substantial or essential component of any system, or as critical technology as part of any system. As described in Public Law 115-232, section 889, covered telecommunications equipment is telecommunications equipment produced by Huawei Technologies Company or ZTE Corporation (or any subsidiary or affiliate of such entities). For the purpose of public safety, security of government facilities, physical security surveillance of critical infrastructure, and other national security purposes, video surveillance and telecommunications equipment produced by Hytera Communications Corporation, Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Company, or Dahua Technology Company (or any subsidiary or affiliate of such entities).
Congress has also passed a bill which prohibits the FCC from issuing new equipment licenses to Dahua and other Chinese surveillance firms due to the potential national security risks.
This contract award is to be awarded to Trinity Security Integrators located in Frederick. Their website tsi-sec.com was registered in March of 2022, and the company has only existed on Facebook since December 2021. Emails to Trinity Security Integrators regarding how long they’ve been in business were not responded to at the time of publication of this article.
According to a presentation at a July 26th work session, Trinity Security Integrators currently provides services to the City of Frederick.
The discussion and vote for purchasing the camera system can be viewed on the Town of Smithsburg’s recording of the town council meeting on Facebook.
In this recording, it is decided to utilize Speed Camera revenue to fund initial purchase costs ($9,995), and Federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for ongoing maintenance costs ($11,999.88 per year for a contract period of 5 years, $59,999.40 total), with the justification that ARPA funds can be used without competitive bids. While the legality of ARPA funded projects bypassing traditional competitive bid requirements is a legal gray area, it ultimately may not matter due to Federal requirements relating to usage of ARPA funds. ARPA funds are Federal grants, and therefore likely prohibited from being used for such a contract since the cameras, a key part of the system, are from Dahua. As such, since this contract appears to be ineligible for ARPA funding, it should go through a competitive bid according to the town charter:
The Town Charter requires advertising for sealed bids for supplies, equipment, construction of public improvements or contractual services involving more than $10,000.
According to a document produced by the office of Senator Ben Cardin on MarylandNonProfits.org, the Town of Smithsburg has been allocated an estimated $2,485,660 through ARPA funding.
Since the contract of $11,999.88 over 5 years comes to a total of $59,999.40, this exceeds the $10,000 threshold and likely requires advertising for sealed bids.
It appears that the Town of Smithsburg may be in violation of their own municipal ordinances, as well as Federal regulations, should they proceed with the contract with Trinity Security Integrators.
To be clear, we do not believe that the town council intended to create this situation. Very rarely will we express our opinions in any story, but we feel it’s important to clear the air here and give all involved the benefit of the doubt. It is our firm belief here at RFHC that the town council was absolutely well-meaning in their vote, as they are urgently trying to replace non-functional cameras in town parks which have not functioned for two years. We believe that they were so caught up “in the moment” trying to resolve the lack of cameras, that they did not think about other consequences of their actions. At the end of the day, the council was only trying to do what they believe is best for the town’s safety.
Unfortunately, beyond the mentioned contractual issues mentioned above, this camera system raises many legal and ethical issues which we believe the council did not intend to introduce. Since the cameras will be recording video and audio 24×7, this means that theoretically, any member of the public may be able to file a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request to obtain copies of audio and video recordings from the park or town hall. Any conversation in those locations, even conversations intended to be private, could theoretically be included in those audio recordings, creating serious privacy concerns for residents in those locations. Video and audio recordings recorded by governments in the course of government business are considered government records, and therefore may be open to public inspection. (And for those curious, police body cams fall under this law as well)
This article is not written with any malice towards the Town of Smithsburg, its elected officials, or its employees. We believe that the town means well, but have been misguided by an age-old sales tactic of creating a sense of urgency that a problem must be addressed immediately. And you can see how effective this sales tactic was by watching the August 9th town council video, where several of the council members are absolutely convinced the cameras must be fixed as soon as possible, trying to find the best way to accelerate the process. Don’t get us wrong, the lack of functional video cameras should absolutely be addressed, but it needs to be done so within the confines of the law, and while still respecting the privacy of park visitors and addressing national security concerns. Addressing the problem within the confines of the law takes time, and one of the reasons to do so is so that local governments don’t rush into an agreement without carefully examining all options. The cameras in the parks have not been functional for two years. An extra month of waiting for bids won’t make the town hall crumble to the ground.
We also don’t believe that there was any intentional malice on behalf of Trinity Security Integrators. As a new company, they may be unfamiliar with the security issues of Dahua and similar cameras. After all, they’re not the ones who recommended that the Town of Smithsburg use Federal funding for the cameras, and they appear to be a relatively newer company. To them, they’re simply trying to provide customers the best value for their dollar, and also make a living. We get it, everyone needs to put food on the table and pay the bills. Unfortunately, sometimes we stumble when we’re starting out, and this is undoubtedly one of those stumbling blocks. Undoubtedly Trinity Security Integrators will better understand the security issues of these camera manufacturers in the future, and hopefully begin recommending camera systems manufactured by US companies. These may be slightly more expensive, but the peace of mind should be worth it.
To better understand the national security concerns with Dahua cameras, read the article regarding the FCC classifying these cameras as national security risks, and the FCC does so with good reason. In 2017 a backdoor was discovered in Dahua cameras which allowed an unauthenticated user to download the usernames and passwords directly from the camera. While Dahua claims this was accidental, experts point to Dahua’s potential influence by the Chinese government as motivation for intentionally leaving in backdoors and vulnerabilities. For those unaware, Maryland is home to a large number of Federal Government employees and contractors. Being able to remotely tap in to security systems and locate Federal employees and contractors in real-time, including their cars and their families, could potentially be very useful to a foreign intelligence agency. The risk is simply too great, and we need to do better to protect our neighbors and our community.
We hope that the Town of Smithsburg will retract its purchase, and proceed with a fair and competitive sealed bid/RFP approach. The residents of Smithsburg deserve better, and we believe the town council fully intends to do what is ultimately right for the town. Ultimately this was a “perfect storm” of issues which has created an uncomfortable situation for the Town of Smithsburg. Hopefully the town will weather the storm, and the ship will remain upright, sailing for blue skies and open seas. Without Chinese spy camera equipment, of course.
RFHC has reached out to the Town of Smithsburg and City of Frederick, but with the exception of Councilman Gonzalez’ response, no further comment was immediately available, and no corrections were sent, therefore we believe this article is as accurate as possible at the time of publication.
More information about this story, including additional responses from interested parties, will be posted as it becomes available.
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