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August 25, 2022updated 26 Aug 2022 7:15am

Made in China: How the UK is decoupling from Chinese technology

The security services, parliamentarians and pressure groups are getting increasingly nervous about the role Chinese technology plays in national life.

By Greg Noone

Earlier this year, Professor Fraser Sampson was waiting in line at the supermarket with his shopping basket. Ahead of the UK’s biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner was another gentleman waiting to buy some free-range eggs. The packaging, recalls Sampson, extolled the care taken in rearing the chickens that had produced these eggs in comparison to their battery-farmed brethren. “Then I looked up,” says Sampson, “and saw all the customers and staff were being monitored by Hikvision cameras.”

Evidently, thought Sampson, the supermarket’s concern for caged birds did not extend to caged people. Founded in 2001, Hikvision remains the world’s leading producer of CCTV cameras and maintains close ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP.) It has also been linked by the US government and others to human rights abuses perpetrated by China in Xinjiang, accusing the firm of coordinating closely with the government to install cameras and other sensors in concentration camps housing thousands of ethnic Uyghurs (“Hikvision has never knowingly or intentionally committed human rights abuses itself or acted in willful disregard and will never do so in the future,” a company spokesperson told Tech Monitor.) These camps are part of an overall attempt by the Chinese state, according to a UK tribunal convened to investigate allegations of human rights abuses in the province, to conduct genocide against the Uyghurs by means of torture and forced sterilisation.

In response, the US and the EU have both considered placing Hikvision on their respective sanctions list – moves that could roil CCTV markets in over 180 countries. One of the most impacted nations would be the UK, where Hikvision cameras can be found watching over every almost type of public or private space. Indeed, a recent report by privacy activists Big Brother Watch found that the company’s products have been acquired by at least 800 public bodies, including inside hospitals, universities, schools and police stations. They have even been found inside government facilities, including the Department of Health, where last year a Hikvision camera captured then-Secretary of State Matt Hancock in fragrante with a senior aide.

The allegations levelled at Hikvision about its activities in Xinjiang have recently led to calls from 67 MPs and Lords that the sale of its cameras should be outlawed in the UK. Anxiety about the role of Chinese-made technology in the UK, however, is not confined to CCTV. Concerns persist among Whitehall and the security services that Chinese technology companies are engaged in campaigns to acquire valuable intellectual property, either through theft or buying up British companies. With this in mind, the UK government has used new powers under the National Security and Investment Act to block or investigate over a dozen commercial deals, including one that would have seen the University of Manchester sell novel computer vision technology to a Chinese firm and a buyout of Newport Wafer Fab by a Chinese-owned Dutch corporation.

Such actions betray a growing sense of unease in government and beyond about the UK’s reliance on products built by a country that has not only demonstrated a willingness and ability to steal industrial secrets on an industrial scale but also uses digital technology as a cudgel to oppress billions of its own citizens.  

“Technology is something which is often considered to be values-agnostic,” says technology analyst Dr Alexi Drew. “The reality is that all of the technologies that we use have baked into them, the values, the ethics, the standards and the beliefs of the people who designed them.”

chinese technology
Concerns are growing in Whitehall that the activities of technology companies from China constitute a major cybersecurity threat to the UK. (Photo courtesy of Racide / Getty.)

Hikvision CCTV in the UK

Central to the anxieties about the activity of companies like Hikvision, WingTech and Huawei inside the UK economy are their connections with the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP.) For decades, major technology firms in China have been lavished with subsidies and – with some notable exceptions – benefited from a light-touch regulatory framework compared to the West. In return, the party expects obedience. As well as maintaining significant shareholdings in major technology companies, since 2018 it has been mandatory for all firms listed inside China to host CCP cells and comply with legislation aiding in the collection of intelligence on targets foreign and domestic.

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These same technology companies are the vanguards of Chinese soft power abroad. Heavily subsidised by the state, telecommunications giant Huawei has become famous for rolling out 5G networks and internet cabling throughout the Global South at much lower prices compared to its Western competitors. It has also been repeatedly accused by the US and European security services of IP theft, violating sanctions against Iran, and facilitating cyber-espionage by the Chinese state.

In 2020, the UK government responded by announcing a ban on telecoms companies buying Huawei products and called on them to rip out all of its equipment from their network, lest the Chinese state obtain an unwanted entrée to the country’s telecommunications system.

Similar concerns swirl around Hikvision. Critics argue that the firm’s adherence to cybersecurity standards has been consistently poor, with a recent study finding that around 80,000 of its web servers were vulnerable to a critical vulnerability left unpatched for an entire year. Another case in 2015, meanwhile, saw around 100 Hikvision cameras in Fiumicino Airport outside Rome attempt to communicate with a server in China over 1.5 million times – an alarming prospect for civil servants in Whitehall, perhaps, with similar cameras being recently found in UK vaccine research facilities at Porton Down. (“Hikvision strictly follows all applicable laws and regulations in the UK to ensure complete compliance,” says a company spokesperson.)

Greater still are concerns that public money is inadvertently funding a company engaged in the oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. “It is an outrage that taxpayers’ money is funding companies so closely linked to genocide,” says Madeleine Stone, a legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch. “The UK Government must follow our allies and ban Chinese state-owned surveillance devices.”

Sampson disagrees. While the commissioner remains concerned at the prevalence of Hikvision cameras across government (Sampson has previously described the devices as “digital asbestos”), he believes a sweeping ban on procurement would instantly invite allegations of Sinophobia and place the burden of proving the company was unfit to supply cameras back on Whitehall. A better way to confront the problem, explains Sampson, would be to reform the Surveillance Camera Code of Conduct to make it mandatory for all CCTV suppliers bidding for public contracts prove that they uphold human rights and rigid cybersecurity standards in their operations.

“If you’re not prepared to do that” as a company, says Sampson, “that’s a business decision for you.”

In the meantime, the commissioner’s own attempts to get to the bottom of Hikvision’s activities in Xinjiang have proven fruitless. In 2021, Sampson sent several letters to the company asking questions about the extent of its involvement in the installation of its cameras in concentration camps throughout the province. “Over a year later,” he says, “I’m still waiting for an answer.”

China’s Internet of Things

Sampson predicts that no meaningful steps will be taken by the government over Hikvision until the next prime minister is appointed. Action is likely, though, from whoever wins the Conservative Party leadership contest. Both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have singled China out as a threat to the UK’s national security, pledging to limit the country’s access to British technologies if elected and “counter Chinese industrial espionage”.

That might be easier said than done. Increasingly, technology analysts and civil servants in Whitehall are also concerned about the threat that Chinese-made IoT components could pose to the UK economy. While the popular perception of IoT is one of smart fridges and doorbells, such devices also sit at the heart of some of our most important supply chains, says Drew. What’s more, approximately half of these components are made by three manufacturers based in China, she explains – constituting a potentially huge number of backdoors into some of the UK economy’s most important industrial networks.

“The most difficult part of a cyberattack, of any type, is gaining… that first piece of access to whatever system or service you're targeting,” says Drew. “But if you're already putting a component in there that you have the potential to access remotely, then you're making that part of it far easier and far cheaper.”

Drew is not arguing that IoT devices made in China were intentionally designed as part of some grand plan for the country’s intelligence services to gain access to vast swathes of the UK economy. “But what we need to be aware of is that all Chinese companies are beholden to the Chinese Communist Party,” she says. “And if they are told ‘you will enable this to happen’, they have no choice but to do exactly that.”

The extent to which such devices have actually been sending data back to China, much less the security standards by which they operate in the first place, has yet to be established. That has to happen soon, argues Drew, alongside a concerted effort by the UK to formulate rigorous international cybersecurity standards for IoT products and nurture competitors to Chinese manufacturers. Despite its use of new powers to block acquisitions of British businesses by Chinese tech companies, however, the analyst considers the government’s record on this issue to be lacklustre.

“I still think, despite there being that legislative framework, most of the UK's responses are still reactionary,” says Drew, who blames political distractions for the lack of action thus far. “It’s understandable, although unhelpful, considering where we are. We can't afford to just down tools, because China isn't. None of our competitors or allies are. It's just us, it seems.”

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A Huawei office building. Wary of facilitating mass surveillance by the Chinese security services, the UK pledged in 2020 to end the firm's participation in upgrading its telecommunications infrastructure to 5G. (Photo courtesy of Nadya So / Getty)

Semiconductors and China

Drew isn’t alone in thinking this. In July, a report by the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee labelled the government’s work on shaping international technology standards as ‘incoherent and muted.’ Its stance on the acquisition of Newport Wafer Fab by Nexperia, meanwhile, was excoriated on the right by Iain Duncan Smith MP, who labelled the government’s initial decision not to investigate the takeover as “outrageous,” and on the left by commentators like economist James Meadway, who wrote that government was ‘still clinging to free market dogma’ by continuing to allow foreign takeovers of strategic industrial assets (a formal investigation into the sale was launched by the business secretary the following month.)

In truth, the UK’s semiconductor industry has suffered from low levels of public and private investment for some time, explains Professor Robert Huggins, chair of economic geography at Cardiff University. “They’re chugging along, they’re making a living, they’re washing their face – but they’re not upscaling,” says Huggins. In that context, the extra investment promised by Nexperia’s takeover would have looked promising to Newport Wafer Fab, he adds. What would help the sector grow in the long-term, though, is further public support in honing the UK’s competitive advantage in R&D.

“We do have a lot of capacity in terms of what you might call the ‘pure’ research area around semiconductors, and that’s largely within the universities,” says Huggins. The sector would benefit from greater commercialisation of this research, adds the professor – work that is dependent on collaboration with other institutions around the world, including those in China, and that some fear could be endangered unnecessarily on national security grounds.

For his part, Huggins wonders whether national security concerns are really behind the government’s investigation into the takeover Newport Wafer Fab. “I’m not saying that some of the issues are unfounded – some of the issues certainly are founded, in a way,” he says. Nevertheless, he adds, “I wonder whether it’s more thinking about industrial policy rather than about issues of espionage."

That’s just as well if the UK is to foster any degree of self-sufficiency in semiconductor design and production, as Huggins recently argued in a piece for The Conversation. Ironically, it comes as Europe is seeing a decline in overall investment from China, with funding for the continent’s IT sector falling from $8bn in 2017 to just $3bn last year, according to one study by Baker McKenzie.

Indeed, the West is becoming less and less important to the development of Chinese technology. While industrial espionage is still a concern to the UK and its allies, it is undeniable that China has acquired formidable capacities in AI research, edge computing and IoT. If the latest predictions from analysts are correct, that will extend to the production of semiconductors by the end of this decade – fulfilling a goal set by the CCP for the People’s Republic to be fully self-sufficient when it comes to chip production.

“There’s an irony in the fact that we’re discussing whether we can decouple from China,” says Drew, “when China is doing its best to decouple from us.”

Read more: 80,000 Hikvision cameras exposed to hackers

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