The UK Cabinet Office has asked central governments to stop installing Chinese-made surveillance systems on “sensitive sites”, citing security risks.
Announcing the ban on Thursday, Cabinet Secretary Oliver Dowden said it would cover visual surveillance equipment “manufactured by companies subject to the People’s Republic of China’s National Intelligence Law”.
He said the decision had been taken after a security review found that “in light of the threat to the UK and the increasing capacity and connectivity of these systems, additional controls are necessary”.
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 “arguably 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 buying cameras from Hikvision, the world’s largest supplier of surveillance cameras. Before the ban came into effect in April, a DHSC minister told parliament it had used 82 Hikvision products.
China’s National Intelligence Law, passed in 2017, compels citizens and organizations to “support, assist and cooperate” with government intelligence efforts. Although it does not explicitly cover data stored outside China and no cases involving foreign nationals have so far come to light, the law also prohibits discussing specific incidents.
Samm Sacks, a senior fellow at Yale Law School, said the decision reflects “growing concerns from governments around the world about Chinese companies handling their data to Beijing” because of the lack of a “meaningful backstop between companies and security services.”
“In practice, Chinese companies are pushing back on the government and security services regarding access to data, which we don’t hear about publicly, as the companies don’t want to be seen as opposing their own government,” she added.
Hikvision said it was “categorically false” to represent the company as a threat to national security. “Hikvision cannot transfer 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 seek to contact the ministers as soon as possible to understand this decision.”
China’s 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 abuses.
In 2019, the United States 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 contributed to “repression, arbitrary mass detention and high-tech surveillance” of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang.
In response, China’s Foreign Ministry said the US had “vehemently slandered 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 thermal cameras it used to monitor visitors for fever, after members objected to the company’s role in allegedly helping Beijing with human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Hikvision has said that it does not monitor the use of its devices once 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 violations.”
This year, a broad coalition of 67 members of the British 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.
Alicia Kearns, Tory chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, backed Dowden’s ban but called for it to be extended to cover all public bodies and local government procurement from Xinjiang-linked companies.
Dowden told the departments that Chinese equipment should not be connected to their “core network”. He also asked the departments to consider removing existing equipment and extending the ban to sites not designated as “sensitive”.
Kearns 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 Chinese state-backed technology,” she said.
Beijing’s Foreign Ministry said: “China firmly opposes that some people are expanding the concept of national security to unreasonably hamper 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