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

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

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

He said the decision had been taken after a security review found that “in light of the threat to the UK and the increasing capability and connectivity of these systems, additional controls are required”.

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

It also comes months after the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) decided to stop purchasing cameras from Hikvision, the world’s largest surveillance camera provider. Before the ban took effect in April, a DHSC minister told parliament it had been using 82 Hikvision products.

China’s National Intelligence Law, enacted in 2017, compels citizens and organisations to “support, assist, and co-operate” state intelligence work. Although it does not explicitly cover data kept outside of China and no cases involving foreign nationals have so far come to light, the law also forbids discussing specific incidents.

Samm Sacks, senior fellow at Yale Law School, said the decision reflected “growing concern from governments around the world of Chinese companies handling their data to Beijing” because of the lack of a “meaningful backstop between companies and security services”.

“In practice, Chinese companies do push back on government and security services over their access to data, which we don’t hear about publicly, since the companies don’t want to be seen to be resisting their own government,” she added.

Hikvision said it was “categorically false” to represent the company as a threat to national security. “Hikvision cannot transmit data from end-users to third parties, we do not manage end-user databases, nor do we sell cloud storage in the UK,” it said. “We will seek to urgently engage further with ministers to understand this decision.”

China’s video surveillance providers lead the global market, but officials from various countries have in recent years imposed restrictions on them, for reasons ranging from security fears to alleged human rights abuses.

In 2019, the US placed multiple Chinese artificial-intelligence surveillance companies, including video-camera makers Hikvision and Dahua, on its trade blacklist.

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

In response, China’s foreign ministry said the US had been “fiercely slandering and smearing China over Xinjiang in an attempt to create an excuse to interfere in China’s internal affairs”.

The European parliament last year removed the Hikvision thermal cameras it was using to monitor visitors for fever, after members objected to the company’s role in allegedly aiding Beijing with human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Hikvision has said it does not oversee 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 members of the UK parliament called for a ban on all UK sales of Dahua and Hikvision equipment on ethical grounds, citing the companies’ involvement in Xinjiang.

Alicia Kearns, Tory chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, backed Dowden’s ban but called for it to be expanded to cover all public bodies and local authorities’ procurement from Xinjiang-linked companies.

Dowden told departments that Chinese equipment should not be connected to their “core networks”. He also asked departments to consider removing existing equipment and widening the ban to include sites not designated as “sensitive”.

Kearns also urged the government to provide ministries with alternative methods of purchasing equipment. “Any ban should be backed up by a new national procurement framework that provides alternatives to Chinese state-backed tech,” she said.

Beijing’s foreign ministry said: “China firmly opposes the broadening of the concept of national security by some people to unreasonably inhibit Chinese companies, and shall continue to closely monitor the situation.”

DHSC 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-Chileshe in London and Maiqi Ding in Beijing

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