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Chinese cameras banned on ‘sensitive’ UK government sites

Image credit: DT

UK government departments have been ordered to stop installing surveillance cameras made by firms subject to China’s national security law, due to security concerns.

The UK government is moving more forcefully against Chinese technology, as it bans the use of certain "visual surveillance systems" on "sensitive" government sites. 

The ban applies to security cameras and other systems made by Chinese companies that are required to cooperate with Beijing’s security services.

Officials have been told to ensure that these systems are not connected to departmental core networks and to consider immediately removing all existing equipment, without waiting for the scheduled updates.

They have also been urged to consider whether the same “risk mitigation” should be extended to locations that are not designated “sensitive”.

The UK’s reticence towards Chinese technology is framed within a long-running technological dispute between Washington and Beijing, in which the latter has been accused of using technology to increase its global influence.

The move also follows increasing concerns by MPs regarding Westminster's technological vulnerabilities. Earlier this month, the UK security minister, Tom Tugendhat, warned that the UK’s democracy is “under attack” after MPs were warned their mobile phones could be used to harvest sensitive information. 

In a written statement, Oliver Dowden, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, told MPs a review "has concluded that, in light of the threat to the UK and the increasing capability and connectivity of these systems, additional controls are required".

Dowden added: “Departments have therefore been instructed to cease deployment of such equipment on to sensitive sites, where it is produced by companies subject to the national intelligence law of the People’s Republic of China. 

“Since security considerations are always paramount around these sites, we are taking action now to prevent any security risks materialising.”

According to the campaign group Big Brother Watch, many public organisations in Britain use CCTV cameras made either by Hikvision or Dahua.

In July this year, a group of 67 MPs and lords urged London to ban the sale and use of surveillance equipment made by the two companies, who have reportedly facilitated the repression of one million Uyghurs in China.

In an accompanying letter from Fraser Sampson, the biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner warned that the UK's public surveillance infrastructure had been built on "digital asbestos".

"Almost every aspect of our lives is now under surveillance using advanced systems designed by, and purchased from, companies under the control of other governments, governments to whom those companies have data-sharing obligations within their own domestic legal framework," Sampson said. 

Alicia Kearns, chairwoman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and the China Research Group of MPs, welcomed the move but said it should go further.

“Public bodies and local authorities should not be procuring from surveillance companies, such as Hikvision, that have consistently failed to come clean over their complicity in CCP-orchestrated human rights abuses against the Uighur people and other minorities in Xinjiang," she said. 

“Any ban should also be backed up by a new national procurement framework that provides alternatives to Chinese state-backed tech that could be compelled to transfer vast amounts of UK citizen data into the hands of the CCP.”

Some individual UK ministries had already been removing Hikvision gear, after images from one of the company's cameras showing then-health secretary Matt Hancock kissing a Parliamentary aide, in clear violation of Covid-19 rules, were leaked to the public. Hancock was forced to resign shortly afterwards. 

In response to Dowden's statement, a Hikvision spokesman said it was "categorically false to represent Hikvision as a threat to national security".

“No respected technical institution or assessment has come to this conclusion," it added. 

“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. Our cameras are compliant with the applicable UK rules and regulations and are subject to strict security requirements.

“We have always been fully transparent about our operations in the UK and have been engaging with the UK government to clarify misunderstandings about the company, our business, and address their concerns. We will seek to urgently engage further with ministers to understand this decision.”

The move comes amid rising concerns regarding the dangers of cyber-security attacks on public bodies from state-sponsored actors. 

Earlier this month, two new reports found that cyber attacks from criminals and state-sponsored groups have significantly increased in the past financial year, turning cyber space into “the domain of warfare”

In a RUSI Security Lecture, the head of the GCHQ, Sir Jeremy Fleming, said that the Chinese government used advanced technologies as a “tool to gain advantage through control of their markets, of those in their sphere of influence and of their own citizens”.

The UK government has also recently blocked the sale of British chip manufacturer Newport Water Fab to a Chinese-owned company on national security grounds.

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