Upon Reflection (12 September)

Time to consider weekly global headlines in an ever-changing world

Selected News Headline

12 September 2018

Chinese video surveillance network used by the Australian government

Dr. John Bruni, CEO & Founder of SIA

12 September 2018, Canberra, Australia – ABC News – Today we learnt that a security camera from the Chinese state-owned company, Hikvision, was found at one of Australia’s most secure military facilities, RAAF Edinburgh, home of some of the country’s most important intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities as well as at other national security locations. Should we be concerned?

The People’s Republic of China (PRC), while a key trading partner of the West is also a major economic and strategic competitor of the West’s.

The PRC has had a long history of conducting international industrial espionage and spying in order to further the commercial and strategic interests of Beijing. This by itself should come as no surprise since all countries to greater or lesser degrees conduct themselves in a similar manner. In the field of international relations and trade, there are no innocent parties. We are all in the muck together.

But it behooves a country to be mindful of who one is conducting business with.

Hikvision is a state-owned enterprise with the majority shareholder being the government of the PRC.

A couple of years ago both the British and Canadian governments reviewed their use of Hikvision and other Chinese origin security technologies for fear of backdoors and other vulnerabilities having been built in to these systems, which potentially could allow PRC authorities to run surveillance operations through them.

Is Hikvision an agent of Beijing?

If economics is all that matters, then perhaps not. It would not be in the interest of a Chinese commercial entity to have the stink of ‘government interference’ in its products. That would be bad for business and give anti-Chinese interests in the West a ‘free kick’. However, as a majority owned Chinese government enterprise, a consumer of Hikvision products can never be certain that such technology could not be turned on them. It is therefore a case of buyer beware.

The PRC is a totalitarian state. Its levels of surveillance technology have been put to use internally through the brutal suppression of its Uyghur population in Xinjiang (East Turkestan), the ethnic displacement of Tibetans and of course, against other ‘enemies of the state’. In fact Hikvision has profited handsomely from its role in providing high-tech surveillance over East Turkestan – now home to one of the most policed and monitored populations in the world. Buying Hikvision therefore is good for the company’s bottom line and its ability to further its role in the surveillance of suspected ‘anti-state’ activities within China. Considering that Chinese authorities do not give suspected ‘enemies of the state’ due process, we in the West, through our continued purchase of Chinese security devices make Hikvision’s activities within China all the more effective.

Hypothetically speaking, we would never have condoned full commercial trading ties with NAZI Germany or the Soviet Union, so why are we morally ambiguous when it comes to trading with the People’s Republic of China? Is the PRC the ‘Panda-bear autocracy?’ Somehow softer than the other heinous historical tyrannies mentioned above because the West has normalised trade relations with it? This is not a question that has been given sufficient thought in the West, and certainly no thought in Australia. We make too much money from the PRC for that. But is moral ambiguity all that we strive for in the 21stCentury?

Returning to Australia, it is important that a review be conducted to eliminate all Chinese-based surveillance devices from its security architecture. Sure, the PRC’s prints have not been caught spying on service personnel coming and going from RAAF Edinburgh and just may be, this was never a problem. But as our military and intelligence services are involved in propping up the US position in East Asia, trying to counter PRC moves in the South Pacific and defending the rights of international passage through the South China Sea (in contravention to what Beijing claims to be its territorial waters), strategically, Beijing and Canberra are poles apart.

As we can never be certain that the PRC has no interest in affecting Australia’s pro-US security position, do we run the risk of opening ourselves up to the possibility of being spied upon? Or do we allow our procurement officials to seek the lowest price of every item, even if it may contain backdoors, malware, spyware and the like, potentially linking back to Chinese authorities?

The discovery of the Chinese built camera on a secure Australian military base should make us question what our position is in the Asia-Pacific. Is Australia simply a trading partner of the Chinese government, wilfully blind to the abuses committed by the PRC against its own people and to its record of spying and running influence operations abroad? Or, being mindful of these things, is Australia a country prepared to stand up for its own national interests, one of which being promoting good international behaviour even if it means upsetting its own business elites and those of its major trading partner.

It would be interesting to see whether this ethical debate ever happens. That would take a level of bravery unlikely under current conditions whether in Australia or anywhere else in the West.

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