UK limits use of Chinese-made surveillance systems on government sites

The British Cabinet Office has asked central government departments to stop installing Chinese-made surveillance systems on “sensitive sites”, citing security risks.

Announcing the ban Thursday, Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Dowden said it would cover visual surveillance equipment “produced by companies subject to the National Intelligence Act of the People’s Republic of China.”

He said the decision was taken after a security review found that “in light of the threat to the UK and increased capacity and connectivity between these systems, additional controls are required”.

The move comes just over a week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said China posed a “systemic challenge” to the UK and called it “undoubtedly the greatest state-based threat to our economic security”.

It also comes months after the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) decided to stop buying cameras from Hikvision, the world’s largest provider of surveillance cameras. Before the ban went into effect in April, a Homeland Security minister told Parliament he was using 82 Hikvision products.

China’s National Intelligence Law, enacted in 2017, obliges citizens and organizations to “support, assist, and cooperate” with the country’s intelligence work. Although it does not explicitly cover data held outside of China and no cases involving foreign nationals have been disclosed yet, the law also prohibits discussion of specific incidents.

Sam Sachs, a senior fellow at Yale Law School, said the decision reflects “growing concern from governments around the world about Chinese companies outsourcing their data to Beijing” over a lack of “meaningful support between companies and security agencies.”

She added, “In practice, Chinese companies are fighting back against the government and security services over their access to data, which we don’t hear about publicly, because companies don’t want to be seen as fighting back against their government.”

Hikvision said it was “categorically wrong” to portray the company as a threat to national security. A Hikvision spokesperson said: “Hikvision cannot transfer data from end users to third parties, we do not manage end user databases, and we do not sell cloud storage in the UK.” “We will urgently seek further communication with ministers to understand this decision.”

Video surveillance providers based in China lead the global market, but officials from various countries have clamped down on them in recent years, for reasons ranging from security concerns to alleged human rights violations.

In 2019, the US placed several Chinese AI surveillance companies, including video camera manufacturers Hikvision and Dahua, on its trade blacklist.

Washington said at the time that the groups were aiding the “repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-tech surveillance” of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s northwest region of Xinjiang.

In response, China’s foreign ministry said the US was “severely cursing and slandering China over Xinjiang in an effort to create an excuse to interfere in China’s internal affairs”.

Last year the European Parliament removed Hikvision’s thermal cameras that it was using to monitor visitors for fevers, after members objected to the company’s role in Beijing’s alleged aid to human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Hikvision said it does not supervise the use of its devices once they are installed. The company commissioned its own report, which concluded that it did not enter into its five security projects in Xinjiang “with the intent to knowingly engage in human rights abuses.”

This year, a broad coalition of 67 British MPs called for a ban on all UK sales of Dahua and Hikvision equipment on ethical grounds, citing the companies’ involvement in Xinjiang.

Alicia Cairns, the Tory chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons, endorsed Dowden’s ban but called for it to be expanded to all public bodies and local authorities’ purchases of companies linked to Xinjiang.

Dowden told the departments that Chinese equipment should not be linked to their “core networks.” It also asked departments to consider removing existing equipment and extending the ban to sites not classified as “sensitive.”

Cairns also urged the government to provide ministries with alternative methods of purchasing equipment. “Any ban must be supported by a new national procurement framework that provides alternatives to state-supported Chinese technology,” she said.

The Department of Homeland Security and Dahua did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Cabinet Office said it had nothing to add to Dowden’s statement.

Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron Chileshi

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