British government bans Chinese surveillance cameras from sensitive locations

The British government has banned departments from installing at sensitive locations surveillance cameras manufactured by Chinese companies due to potential information security issues, and is facing calls to ban them entirely from the public sector.

Announcing the findings of a security review on Thursday, the Cabinet Secretary Oliver Dowden said that the restrictions were being introduced “in light of the threat to the UK and the increasing capability and connectivity of these systems.”

Not only will the equipment be disallowed from sensitive sites, departments have also been advised that the same equipment should never be connected to core networks if installed elsewhere. The updated guidance also encourages departments to consider stripping the cameras out from less sensitive sites too to avoid introducing additional risks.

The restrictions will affect all cameras “produced by companies subject to the National Intelligence Law of the People’s Republic of China” referencing a law introduced in 2017 which the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has also cited regarding the use of Huawei equipment in telecommunications networks.

Explaining its concerns about the law, the NCSC said it codified Beijing’s power to “compel anyone in China to do anything” and linked to a Lawfare article which explains how it “repeatedly obliges individuals, organizations, and institutions to assist Public Security and State Security officials in carrying out a wide array of ‘intelligence’ work.”

The hypothetical scenario relevant to both Huawei equipment and surveillance cameras connected to telecommunications networks would be if the Chinese government secretly compelled the manufacturers to include software that allowed it to covertly interrupt the networks their equipment was installed on.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told journalists on Friday that China “firmly opposes the overstretching of the concept of national security by some people to unreasonably suppress Chinese enterprises.”

Madeleine Stone, legal and policy officer at civil liberties organization Big Brother Watch, welcomed the government's decision "to end the deployment of Hikvision and Dahua surveillance equipment" as "an important first step." Hikvision and Dahua are both Chinese manufacturers of video surveillance equipment that have come under scrutiny in recent years.

However, Stone added: “The protection afforded to ministers and civil servants must be expanded to all of us. Our research has found that Chinese state-owned CCTV is used by over 60% of public bodies.

“Now the government has acknowledged the risk these companies pose to national security, they should protect the public at large and ban Hikvision and Dahua from operating anywhere in the UK. It is unacceptable that companies that pose a real risk to security and rights are allowed to operate on the streets of Britain,” she added.

Her call was echoed by Fraser Sampson, the country's biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner, who has repeatedly highlighted his interactions with Hikvision and Dahua, stating they “cannot be trusted, partly because of concerns about the role they and their technology are believed to have played in perpetuating the appalling treatment of Uyghur Muslims [...] but also because of those companies’ absolute refusal to engage with even the most cursory level of public accountability in response to those concerns.”

In a statement emailed to The Record on Friday, Sampson said: “This is a first, very welcome step, but sensitive sites are the easy bit. Now police and local authorities need to get their acts together, and quickly. Once we lose trust in someone, surely there’s no place for them in any surveillance role. In which case, now we’ve accepted that some companies can’t be trusted, we shouldn’t be using them or their equipment. Which policing activities are sufficiently unimportant to leave to an untrusted surveillance partner?”

Hikvision itself said it was “categorically false to represent Hikvision as a threat to national security” and said it wanted to “urgently” speak to the British government to address the concerns.

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Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin

is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.