Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said on Thursday that the administration would review its entire surveillance system across government buildings and remove certain Chinese-made cameras over concerns that the data collected from them endangers national security.
“It’s a significant thing that’s been brought to our attention and we’re going to fix it,” Marles told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The move comes at the urging of opposition senator and shadow cyber security minister James Paterson, who earlier on Thursday published the results of a six-month inquiry that found that at least 913 devices manufactured by the Chinese companies Hikvision and Dahua were installed in at least 250 Australian government and agency sites, including its defense department, its foreign affairs and trade department, and the office of its Attorney-General.
“We may never know if data is being exfiltrated from these cameras,” Paterson told the Canberra Times, “and whether it is ultimately falling into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party and its intelligence agencies.”
Not the first to do this
Australia is following in the footsteps of its major military allies the U.S. and the U.K. in banning Chinese cameras from government sites.
In 2018, Congress amended the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act to ban U.S. federal agencies from sourcing telecommunications or video surveillance equipment from Chinese firms Huawei, ZTE, Hikvision, and Dahua. “We must face the reality that the Chinese-government is using every avenue at its disposal to target the United States,” then-Rep. Vicky Hartzler, who helped draft the legislation, said at the time, adding that the new measure would “ensure that China cannot create a video surveillance network within federal agencies.”
In 2020, the Trump administration expanded the ban to the entire government, including federal contractors, though consumers could still purchase products made by these firms. And in November 2022, the Biden administration announced a complete prohibition on the import and sale of equipment by the four Chinese companies. “These new rules are an important part of our ongoing actions to protect the American people from national security threats involving telecommunications,” F.C.C. Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement at the time.
Also last November, the U.K. parliament restricted the use of Chinese-produced equipment on “sensitive sites,” following a call from 67 parliamentarians in July over security concerns with the surveillance systems. Senior minister Oliver Dowden said that “in light of the threat to the U.K. and the increasing capability and connectivity of these systems, additional controls are required.”
Taiwan, the self-governing island China claims to be part of its territory, also stopped government use of Chinese information and communication devices over national security concerns as early as 2020.
Data vulnerability fears
Both Hikvision and Dahua, headquartered in Hangzhou in eastern China, are partly state-owned, and many of the bans on their technology stem from concerns that the state will exploit its position to access sensitive information collected by the companies.
Hikvision is the world’s leading video surveillance equipment provider, and together with Dahua controls about 60% of the total market. As of November 2021, more than 6 million Hikvision and Dahua camera networks were detected across 191 countries outside of China.
China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law mandates citizens and organizations to cooperate with national intelligence efforts, and observers see this as China’s way of being able to obtain data from private businesses operating domestically and abroad.
“Generally speaking, they say that that data wouldn’t be accessed,” says Samantha Hoffman, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, “but then if there is a national security or national defense demand for that data, then it would be, because of the constraints of [the] law.”
In a statement to TIME, Hikvision repeated its longstanding claims that it is “categorically false” to represent the company’s products as a threat to national security. A spokesperson said Hikvision cannot access users’ video data and does not transmit the data to third parties. It also said it neither manages end-user databases nor sells cloud storage in Australia.
Dahua Technology also said it does not store or share customer data, and it rejects alleged ties to the government of China. The company said in a statement that it adheres to all laws, business ethics, and common standards for security practices in every market in which it operates. “Our company does not act and has not acted in ways that are contrary to the national security of Australia.”
Human rights issues, too
Hoffman adds that both companies have a history of using facial recognition technology, which has been applied in targeting ethnic minorities in China and undermining human rights in the country.
Surveillance technology trade publication IPVM found last year that Hikvision cameras were used to track and detain Uighurs in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. The E.U. Parliament had installed the company’s cameras in 2020 but removed them a year later amid the reported role of Hikvision’s technology in Chinese human rights abuses.
Aside from the security risks, “there’s enough to suggest that these companies’ products—at least from an ethical standpoint—shouldn’t be used in government buildings,” Hoffman says.
China has long been criticized for operating a surveillance state within its borders and increasingly for its alleged insidiousness elsewhere—prompting the U.S. and others to push back more firmly against Chinese products perceived to present a threat to national security.
TikTok’s future in the U.S. is currently on the fence as lawmakers mull barring access to the app altogether due to concerns over data leaks.
The Chinese Embassy in Australia did not respond to a request for comment. But at a daily briefing, spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry Mao Ning criticized what she called “wrongful practices that overstretch the concept of national security and abuse state power to suppress and discriminate against Chinese enterprises.” And on Feb. 8, in response to questions about the alleged spy balloon floating over the U.S. last week, Mao said that “exaggerating or hyping up the ‘China threat’ narrative is not conducive to building trust or improving ties.”
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he did not see his country’s diplomatic relations with Beijing, which had just begun to thaw, flaring due to the removal of the surveillance equipment.
“We act in accordance with Australia’s national interest,” he said in a press conference Thursday. “We do so transparently and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
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