Chinese spy balloon stunt appears outside Parliament

Big Brother Watch Team / February 23, 2023

A swarm of spoof Chinese spy balloons have appeared opposite Parliament with a message to “ban Chinese CCTV”.

The stunt, by privacy group Big Brother Watch, draws attention to the “widespread, intrusive and panoptic use of surveillance cameras in the UK made by Chinese state-owned companies” and calls on the Government to ban the sale and operation of the companies’ tech.

The spy balloon-themed demonstration, also attended by campaign groups Stop Uyghur Genocide and Free Tibet and Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael, comes as Parliament is debating procurement laws. A cross-party coalition of parliamentarians amended the Procurement Bill to require a timeline for removing surveillance tech made by companies linked to crimes against humanity, such as Hikvision and other Chinese state-owned firms, from the Government’s procurement supply chain. However, in a move that angered human rights campaigners, the Government overturned the amendment to the Bill and has made no commitment to impose a US-style ban on the controversial tech.

Surveillance products made by Chinese state-owned companies Hikvision and Dahua have been used to facilitate serious human rights abuses in the Uyghur region (“Xinjiang”), Tibet and Hong Kong. Some of the CCTV cameras boast features such as “Uyghur alerts” and “ethnicity recognition” widely thought to be used in the CCP’s ethnic persecution of minorities.

The cameras have also caused serious national security concerns, given their links to the Chinese state and their history of security flaws. Last year, the Cabinet Office recommended that Government departments remove surveillance equipment made by “companies subject to the National Intelligence Law of the People’s Republic of China” due to “security risks”. Both the Scottish and Welsh governments have committed to removing the cameras from their buildings.1 However, the Government have so far resisted calls from MPs and rights groups for a full UK-wide ban on Chinese CCTV companies such as Hikvision and Dahua, whose cameras are being used by over 60% of public bodies in the UK.

Retailers including Co-op, Marks & Spencer and Tesco are also coming under fire for use Hikvision cameras. This week, campaigners from Big Brother Watch, Free Tibet, Hong Kong Watch and Stop Uyghur Genocide wrote to the retail bosses calling on them to drop Chinese state-owned companies’ surveillance tech from their stores.

Last week, the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner said “There has been a lot in the news in recent days about how concerned we should be about Chinese spy balloons 60,000ft up in the sky. I do not understand why we are not at least as concerned about the Chinese cameras 6ft above our head in the street and elsewhere.”2

67 parliamentarians have signed Big Brother Watch’s pledge3 calling for “a ban on the sale and operation of Hikvision and Dahua surveillance equipment in the UK”, condemning their involvement in “technology-enabled human rights abuses in China”, and calling on the Government to “commission an independent national review of the scale, capabilities, ethics and rights impact of modern CCTV in the UK.” The pledge followed the NGO’s publication of a report last year exposing the “dominance” of Chinese state-owned companies’ surveillance tech across the UK, whose cameras are used by 73% of local authorities, over 3 out of 5 schools, colleges and NHS Trusts, and a third of police forces. 4

Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch said:

“Whilst Chinese spy balloons have rightly caused international alarm, the British government is guilty of inaction against the widespread, intrusive and panoptic use of surveillance cameras in the UK made by Chinese state-owned companies.

“This digital asbestos raises serious security and privacy risks for millions of people in Britain, with the majority of public authorities’ CCTV cameras made by Chinese state-owned firms.

“By spending millions on Chinese-made tech to build a surveillance state at home, the UK government is indirectly supporting China’s crimes against humanity and ethnic persecution overseas.

“Complacency on this issue jeopardises human rights at home and abroad. CCP-owned surveillance companies like Hikvision and Dahua must be banned from the UK, as they are in the US, and the Government should commission an independent review into the impact of modern CCTV in Britain.”