British government agencies have been ordered to stop installing surveillance cameras made by companies subject to China’s national security law amid security concerns.
The UK government is cracking down on Chinese technology by banning the use of certain “visual surveillance systems” at “sensitive” government sites.
The ban applies to surveillance cameras and other systems owned by Chinese companies that have to work with Beijing’s security services.
Officials have been instructed to ensure these systems are not connected to departments’ core networks and to consider removing any existing equipment immediately without waiting for scheduled updates.
They were also asked to consider whether the same “risk mitigation” should be extended to sites not classified as “sensitive”.
Britain’s reticence towards Chinese technology is embedded in a long-running technological row between Washington and Beijing, which has accused Beijing of using technology to increase its global influence.
The move also follows MPs’ growing concerns about Westminster’s technological vulnerabilities. Earlier this month, UK Security Secretary Tom Tugendhat warned that Britain’s democracy was “under fire” after MPs were warned their mobile phones could be used to gather sensitive information.
In a written statement, Oliver Dowden, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, told MPs that a review “concluded that given the threat to the UK and the increasing capability and connectivity of these systems, additional controls are needed”.
Dowden added: “The departments have therefore been ordered to stop using such devices in sensitive locations where they are manufactured by companies subject to the National Intelligence Law of the People’s Republic of China.
“As security considerations are always paramount around these sites, we are now taking steps to prevent security risks from occurring.”
According to campaign group Big Brother Watch, many public organizations in the UK use CCTV cameras made by either Hikvision or Dahua.
In July this year, a group of 67 MPs and Lords called on London to ban the sale and use of surveillance equipment by the two companies, which have reportedly facilitated the oppression of a million Uyghurs in China.
In a covering letter from Fraser Sampson, the Commissioner for Biometrics and Surveillance Cameras warned that Britain’s public surveillance infrastructure had been built on “digital asbestos”.
“Nearly every aspect of our lives is now monitored using advanced systems developed and purchased by companies controlled by other governments, governments to which those companies have data-sharing obligations within their own national legal frameworks,” Sampson said.
Alicia Kearns, chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and China Research Group of MPs, welcomed the move but said it should go further.
“Public and local authorities should not buy from surveillance companies like Hikvision, which have consistently failed to clarify their complicity in CCP-orchestrated human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” she said.
“Any ban should also be backed by a new national procurement framework that offers alternatives to state-backed Chinese technology that could be forced to transfer vast amounts of British citizen data into the hands of the CCP.”
Some individual UK government departments had already removed Hikvision equipment after images from one of the company’s cameras showing then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock kissing an aide in Parliament, in clear breach of Covid-19 rules, leaked to the public were. Hancock was forced to resign shortly thereafter.
In response to Dowden’s testimony, a Hikvision spokesman said it was “categorically wrong to portray Hikvision as a threat to national security.”
“No reputable technical body or assessment has come to this conclusion,” she added.
“Hikvision cannot transfer end-user data to third parties, we do not maintain end-user databases, nor do we sell cloud storage in the UK. Our cameras comply with applicable UK rules and regulations and are subject to strict security requirements.
“We have always been completely transparent about our operations in the UK and have worked with the UK Government to clarify any misunderstandings about the company and our business and to address their concerns. We will make urgent efforts to keep in touch with ministers to understand this decision.”
The move comes amid growing concerns about the dangers of cybersecurity attacks on public facilities by state-sponsored actors.
Earlier this month, two new reports found that cyberattacks by criminals and state-sponsored groups have increased significantly over the past fiscal year, turning cyberspace into a “domain of warfare.”
In a RUSI security lecture, GCHQ head Sir Jeremy Fleming said the Chinese government is using advanced technologies as “a tool to gain advantage by controlling its markets, those in its sphere of influence and its own citizens”. .
The British government also recently blocked the sale of British chipmaker Newport Water Fab to a Chinese company for reasons of national security.
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