British police are vulnerable to spying by Beijing due to their dependence on Chinese-made technology, according to the UK surveillance commissioner.
A new survey from the office of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner found that police forces in England and Wales were “shot through” with CCTV drones and body cameras from China.
The findings, released on Wednesday, follow Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s warning this week that Britain is ready to take down any Chinese surveillance balloons spotted in UK airspace.
Sunak’s comments were prompted by an international furore over the appearance of a suspected Chinese spy balloon in US airspace that was subsequently shot down this month.
The report revealed that several forces had been using technology from Chinese company Hikvision, one of the world’s biggest makers of surveillance equipment, which has been blacklisted by the US over Beijing’s repression of Uyghur Muslims.
“It is abundantly clear from this detailed analysis of the survey results that the police estate in the UK is shot through with Chinese surveillance cameras,” said Fraser Sampson, Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner.
The survey, conducted in the second half of 2022, asked 43 police forces, British Transport Police, Civil Nuclear Constabulary, the Ministry of Defence and the National Crime Agency about their use of technology.
At least 18 forces in England and Wales were using external camera systems that raised security or ethical concerns.
A minimum of 24 respondents were using internal cameras operated by Chinese suppliers, or US suppliers known to use Chinese components.
In most instances forces were aware of the issues surrounding the equipment they were using. Twenty-three of 31 forces that were operating drones said they were aware of “security or ethical concerns” about the manufacturer, Chinese company DJI.
Chinese companies supplying police forces included Dahua, Huawei and Nuuo. US company Honeywell, which supplies the police, is also known to use Chinese components in its technology.
In 2020, the UK banned the use of Huawei kit in 5G telecoms networks, and three months ago prohibited the use of Chinese CCTV equipment in government buildings.
The report lays bare the extent of continuing vulnerabilities within the UK’s security system. Intelligence officials have previously reported the risks of Chinese-made equipment being used to gather population data for the purposes of espionage.
“There has been a lot in the news in recent days about how concerned we should be about Chinese spy balloons 60,000 feet up in the sky,” Sampson said. “I do not understand why we are not at least as concerned about the Chinese cameras six feet above our head in the street and elsewhere.”