Surveillance and Espionage Allegations on Chinese Tech Companies Continue to Haunt Global Clients

China’s deteriorating image as a country that penetrates into the security apparatus and steal vital data from government departments of the client countries has added yet another country in the list who have decided to remove Chinese equipment from government buildings. Speaking recently on Australia’s national broadcaster ABC, country’s Defence Minister Richard Marles revealed that Chinese-made security cameras would be removed from government buildings for fear of breach of security. “It’s important that we go through this exercise and make sure that our facilities are completely secure.”

The minister said that removing Chinese made cameras was crucial to make facilities “completely secure” and therefore, government officials have been instructed to find and remove all these cameras at military sites. It follows similar moves in the United States and Britain, which have both taken measures to stop government departments from installing Chinese-made cameras at sensitive sites. Australia is the latest entrant in the list of such countries after Britain acted in November last year due to fears that Chinese companies could be forced to share intelligence with Beijing’s security services.

According to official figures, security cameras were installed at more than 200 Australian government buildings including at least one run by the Department of Defence. The cameras were made by companies Hikvision and Dahua, which have both been blacklisted in the United States. The US banned the import of surveillance equipment made by Hikvision and Dahua in November last year because it posed “an unacceptable risk to national security”. In Britain, a group of 67 MPs and Lords called for the government to ban Hikvision and Dahua in July last year, following reports that their equipment had been used to spy on Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In November, UK banned the Chinese telecom and surveillance equipment companies because by law they are under obligation to share data with Chinese government if the latter requests for the same.

It was a Hikvision camera that caught former UK’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock kissing an aide in violation of Covid rules in June 2021, leading to his resignation.  However, Hikvision described it as “categorically false” to paint the company as “a threat to national security”.

Allegations on China regarding surveillance and espionage through various Chinese made telecom and other tech gadgets is not new and despite rebuttal by the Chinese tech companies, their integrity towards client countries have always been in doubt, especially their connection with the Communist Party of China (CPC) and  People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The Biden administration banned approvals of new telecommunications equipment from China’s Huwaei Technologies and ZTE in November 2022 alleging that they pose “an unacceptable risk” to US national security.” It also banned the sale or import of equipment made by China’s surveillance equipment maker Dahua Technology, video surveillance firm Hangzhou, Hikivision Digital Technology and telecoms firm Hytera Communications.

Foreign clients continue to purchase Chinese telecoms and surveillance equipment for their variety, technology and cost competitiveness despite knowing that they could be used as conduits for foreign espionage, hacking and other nefarious activities. Even the US is not an exception. This is confirmed in a report prepared by Georgetown University’s Centre for Security and Technology which claimed that state and local officials in US have continued installing products from the banned companies in the networks of schools, hospitals, transit systems, utility departments, and other government facilities nationwide.

Chinese companies pose a variety of threats including ransom ware and data breach apart from hacking and penetrating into important utilities’ communication infrastructure. Huawei has been implicated in data breaches, internet censorship, and espionage in dozens of countries.FBI investigators discovered that the company’s equipment could intercept or disrupt communications related to US military’s nuclear arsenal. Potential backdoors have also been uncovered in products from other Chinese companies, such as Hickivision. The experts suggest that if the equipment is deployed in government networks, they could serve as possible entry points for hackers looking to damage public services, steal sensitive data, or on internal operations.

At present, 5G telecoms equipment from China are also banned or kept under strict monitoring in many countries including US, Australia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, Sweden, Vietnam and Taiwan etc. Even though many countries are using Chinese equipment for the development of their 5G network, suspicion on the Chinese companies has not lessened and they remain under strict vigilance and monitoring.

The Chinese involvement in 5G networks is seen with suspicion because cellular network equipment sourced from Chinese vendors may contain backdoors enabling surveillance by Chinese government. The fear arises because of PRC laws make it mandatory for the Chinese companies and individuals to assist the state intelligence agency on the collection of information whenever requested. It is because of this reason that all members of the Five Eyes international intelligence alliance which includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States have declared that the use of Huawei telecommunications equipment, particularly in 5G networks, poses “significant security risks.”

The global 5G networks continues to face security threat because only eight countries have been willing to ban Huawei’s equipment while more than 90 countries have signed up with Huawei, including some NATO members.

Even if for variety, technology and cost advantage, Chinese telecom and surveillance equipment continue to be purchased by countries, it is high time that global community makes an international convention to decouple the suppliers of such equipment from the government which compels them for complying with any law making it mandatory to share data with the state or conduct intelligence for it.  Meanwhile, countries whose stakes are high are resorting to ban or increase monitoring of Chinese telecoms and surveillance equipment.

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