Wednesday, May 5, 2021

UK Spy Agencies Putting Curbs on Chinese ‘Smart Cities’ Technology

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Max Lu
Max Lu is an author who specializes in Asian geopolitics.

Smart cities are urban areas that use different types of electronic methods and sensors to collect data. Insights gained from that data are used to manage assets, resources, and services efficiently; in return, that data is used to improve the operations across the city. This includes data collected from citizens, devices, buildings, and assets that are then processed and analyzed to monitor and manage traffic and transportation systems, power plants, utilities, water supply networks, waste, crime detection, information systems, schools, libraries, hospitals, and other community services.

The UK-based spy agencies are skeptical of relying on the much-touted Chinese smart cities technology. The Intelligence chiefs think this technology can be misused by the Chinese government for espionage purposes. So, they are recommending curbs on the regional authorities deploying Chinese “smart cities” technology. This is, in fact, not the first time these agencies expressed doubt over the safety of using Chinese technologies. The UK government earlier banned the usage of Huawei systems in the UK 5G telecoms networks. This was in sync with the moves of the U.S. which denied the Chinese tech giant entry into its soil.

London bicyclist
The UK-based spy agencies are skeptical of relying on the much-touted Chinese smart cities technology. (Image: Dreamstime.com © Joao Roberto Camarneiro)

UK government worried about smart cities technology from China

Downing Street made clear its view on the latest security, defense, and diplomatic strategy. It said the UK is not averse to doing trade and investment with China, but deals that hamper prosperity and security will not be entertained. Smart city technology is a much-used term that denotes a setup comprising urban connectivity systems. It includes components like intelligent energy supply, traffic management, CCTV surveillance, and these are often interconnected. It is used extensively in major Chinese cities such as Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai.

The major suppliers of such smart city technology include brands like Hikvision, e-commerce giant Alibaba, and Huawei, which is supplying hardware in the UK smart city projects. It also acts as a vendor for telecom equipment. The critics are of the view that the smart city concept is a masked method deployed by Beijing to keep the residents under strict surveillance — digitally.

The top UK spying agencies like MI5 and the National Cyber Security Centre have said using Chinese smart city technology may be detrimental for the UK from a security perspective. They suggest the introduction of new laws to put curbs on the usage of the disputed technology. This will help put restrictions on the deployment of the technology.

The UK security agencies are worried about the risk of personal data misuse. A security official said: “Because you’ve got all this population-scale data anonymized in different ways, there’s a risk that someone could recombine them to identify… the types of people visiting particular buildings or accessing particular services.” The risk of Beijing forcing the Chinese tech vendors to hand over gathered data is also there. These can be misused later.

Huawei sign
The major suppliers of such smart city technology include brands like Hikvision, e-commerce giant Alibaba, and Huawei, which is supplying hardware in the UK smart city projects. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

The UK security agencies are also worried about other risks posed by the rampant deployment of Chinese smart city technologies. The technology is also not immune to hacking attacks. The agencies think if a malicious group obtains the data using the loopholes in the system that can very well be misused by the terrorist groups.

Given the fact several UK city authorities are using smart city projects, the security agencies remain worried. The surveillance systems are made mostly by China-based Hikvision. Notably, this company has been blacklisted by the U.S. for Beijing’s handling of the Uyghur Muslims.

Some aspects of smart cities technology are potentially beneficial

While the risk factors of using Chinese smart city technology are there, the experts are not overlooking the potential benefits either. Connected Places Catapult, an urban innovation advisor backed by the government highlighted the benefits. Its director of strategic analysis, Sam Markey said: “With local budgets tighter than ever in the wake of COVID-19, the benefits of connected places technologies to local authorities, public transport bodies, and property managers are real and obvious.” He added that using smart city technologies can bring multiple benefits if they are used in the right ways.

The House of Commons foreign affairs committee also supports having tighter control over the usage of Chinese technologies and infrastructure in the UK cities. It thinks the UK government should be vigilant on the deployment of risky technologies. The Chinese technology vendors however have not commented on the topic.

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