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

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

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

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

The move comes just over a week after Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, said China posed a “systemic challenge” to the UK and called it “undoubtedly the biggest state 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 came into effect in April, a DHSC minister told parliament he used 82 Hikvision products.

China’s National Intelligence Law, passed in 2017, compels citizens and organizations to “support, assist and cooperate” with the work of state intelligence. Although it does not explicitly cover data held outside of China and no cases of foreign nationals have been disclosed so far, the law also prohibits discussing specific incidents.

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Sam Sachs, a senior fellow at Yale Law School, said the decision reflected “growing concerns from governments around the world about Chinese companies handling their data in Beijing” because of the lack of a “significant 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, because companies don’t want to be seen as going against their own government,” she added.

Hikvision said it was “categorically false” to portray the company as a threat to national security. “Hikvision cannot transfer end-user data to third parties, we do not manage end-user databases or sell cloud storage in the UK,” it said. “We will urgently seek further engagement with ministers to understand this decision.”

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

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

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

In response, China’s Foreign Ministry said the US was “vehemently slandering and defaming China over Xinjiang in an attempt to create an excuse to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

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

Hikvision said it does not monitor the use of its devices after they are installed. The company commissioned its own report, which concluded that it did not enter 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 sales of Dahua and Hikvision equipment in the UK on ethical grounds, citing the companies’ involvement in Xinjiang.

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Alicia Kearns, the Tory chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs defense committee, backed Dowden’s ban but called for it to be extended to cover all public bodies and local government procurement by companies linked to Xinjiang.

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

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

Beijing’s foreign ministry said: “China firmly opposes the expansion of the concept of national security by some people to unreasonably inhibit Chinese companies and will 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-Chilese in London and Maiqi Ding in Beijing

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