After a tireless campaign by human rights advocates and colleagues across Parliament, the Procurement Bill, currently finishing its progress through Parliament, will mandate the removal of surveillance equipment made by Chinese companies from sensitive government sites.
A new Cabinet Office unit will also investigate suppliers bidding for public contracts who pose a risk to national security.
The move signals a more responsible approach to security and data privacy, which I have been calling for with colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Surveillance equipment made by companies subject to Article 7 of Beijing’s National Intelligence Law – which compels it to assist the PRC’s data collection activities and which is part of the CCP’s all-encompassing surveillance project – has no place in our sensitive sectors.
It also invites the question of whether the Government will now investigate surveillance in sectors that are equally important – such as our health and genetic data.
Just as our sensitive departments, civil servants, and information should be shielded from the prying eyes of Chinese-made CCTV, British citizens must also not be left exposed to Chinese companies providing the tools for genetic surveillance.
When Chinese genomics company BGI Group (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) began accepting samples of DNA at its new sequencing centre in London this May, it went almost entirely unnoticed. The silence over a company labelled a “danger point” by the Science Minister in March 2023 – and sanctioned by the US for enabling repression of ethnic minorities in China – showed a lack of awareness over who has access to our DNA and the dangers of its misuse.
Compared to Hikvison cameras, where the risks are known, concerns over genomics companies are less understood. However, human DNA should sit above all other types of data in terms of importance. It is our permanent identifier, can show susceptibility to disease, and reveal our family medical history.
For adversaries, it is enormously valuable, and can be exploited for security and economic purposes. A recent Intelligence and Security Committee report warns that China is particularly interested in government departments, academic institutions and private companies with access to data and emerging technology such as biotechnology, as it plans to dominate the biomedicine industry.
The Government must assure British citizens, universities, and the NHS – who have used or continue to use BGI’s equipment and services – that the new Cabinet Office unit will also consider health and genetic data as sensitive sectors for national security.
That is why I co-signed a letter to the Information Commissioner’s Office calling for an investigation into BGI’s pre-natal tests. According to a Reuters investigation, these tests have been used by millions globally and developed with the Chinese military. According to the US National Security Commission on AI, the CCP views genetic data as a priority and is collecting it on a global scale.
Whilst BGI claims to be a private company, it enjoys major state support, operates China’s national genetic database and hosts government-designated “key labs”. This raises serious concerns over BGI’s access to our health data, collected through university partnerships or pre-natal tests, with little control over how it is used.
As the Government takes positive actions to protect sensitive government sites from Chinese-made CCTV, it must do more to also protect our citizens against Chinese genetic surveillance. As an immediate first step, it must confirm whether the new unit will investigate genomics firms like BGI.
Failure to do so risks us sleep-walking into another data privacy and national security disaster, one which will be costlier than removing Hikvision’s CCTV cameras from buildings.
Henry Smith MP