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

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

Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Dowden announced the ban on Thursday, saying 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 was made after a security inquiry found that “in light of the threat to the UK and the increasing capacity and connectivity of these systems, additional checks are needed”.

The move comes just over a week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said China posed a “systemic challenge” to the UK, calling 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 came into effect in April, a DHSC minister told parliament that he had used 82 Hikvision products.

China’s National Intelligence Law, which took effect in 2017, forces citizens and organizations to “support, assist and cooperate” in state intelligence work. While it does not explicitly cover data held outside of China and no cases involving foreigners have come to light to date, the law also prohibits discussing specific incidents.

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

“In practice, Chinese companies are pushing back government and security services because of their access to data, which we don’t hear about publicly because the companies don’t want them to oppose their own government,” she added.

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

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

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

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

In response, China’s foreign ministry said the US had “vehemently maligned and smeared 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 imaging cameras it used to check visitors for fever after members objected to the company’s role in allegedly helping Beijing with human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Hikvision has said it does not monitor the use of its devices once installed. The company commissioned its own report, which concluded that it had not entered into its five security projects in Xinjiang “with intent to knowingly violate human rights.”

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 selection committee, supported Dowden’s ban but called for it to be extended to all government agencies and local authorities’ purchases of Xinjiang-affiliated companies.

Dowden told the departments that Chinese equipment should not be connected to their “core networks”. He also asked departments to remove existing equipment and extend the ban to locations not identified as “sensitive”.

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

Beijing’s foreign ministry said: “China is firmly opposed to the broadening of the concept of national security by some people to unreasonably hinder 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-Chileshe in London and Maiqi Ding in Beijing

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