China dismisses reports it tracked British government vehicles as 'disinformation'

A security officer is cited as saying that a Chinese-made SIM card could track official movements over time.
By Amelia Loi for RFA Cantonese
2023.01.10
China dismisses reports it tracked British government vehicles as 'disinformation'
Credit: Amanda Wesibrod/RFA

China has denied a media report that it installed tracking devices in British government vehicles, dismissing the allegations as "sheer rumor" amid growing concerns over overseas infiltration by Beijing.

The i newspaper reported on Jan. 6 that a hidden Chinese tracking device was found in a government car after intelligence officials stripped back vehicles in response to growing concerns over spyware.

At least one SIM card capable of transmitting location data was discovered in a sweep of government and diplomatic vehicles which uncovered “disturbing things,” the report quoted a security source as saying.

"China has no need and no interest in collecting information on the location of British vehicles," a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in London said in a statement posted to the embassy website.

"Some people in the U.K. would do well ... to stop spreading disinformation."

According to the i's source, the device had been inside a sealed part imported from a supplier in China and installed by the vehicle manufacturer, and could send back detailed data on the vehicle's movements over time, enabling whoever received it to establish a "rich picture of activity."

The embassy spokesperson said the report was a politically motivated attempt to "smear Chinese businesses" and "disrupt supply chains."

The report comes amid growing concerns over Chinese Communist Party infiltration of all aspects of British life, and after a decision by local officials not to allow China to build a "super-embassy" on the site of a historic building in east London. 

British officials said in November they were planning a slew of measures aimed at curbing infiltration and influence operations by foreign governments, including probing recent attacks inside the Chinese consulate on a Hong Kong protester and amid warnings of growing Chinese Communist Party infiltration of British universities.

China last month recalled six of its diplomats from the United Kingdom, including a consul general who admitted to assaulting a Hong Kong protester inside the Chinese consulate in Manchester, following a request by the British government that they waive diplomatic immunity and agree to be questioned by Manchester police regarding the attacks on protester Bob Chan.

ENG_CHN_UKTracking_01102023.2.JPG
British Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael says Chinese surveillance equipment manufacturer Hikvision had built 'the most incredibly intrusive infrastructure that was used to oppress the Uyghur population [in Xinjiang] and the company now operates widely in this country.' Credit: Reuters file photo

'CCP espionage'

The i quoted ruling Conservative Party MP Alicia Kearns, who chairs the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, as calling for greater data resilience to counter the threat from a "tech totalitarian state."

"Our data reveals everything about us, from our locations, friendships and networks to our habits, vulnerabilities and activities – this information could be exploited by [Beijing] against government ministers and officials," she was quoted as saying.

"If these SIM cards have been duplicitously installed, then this is CCP espionage," she said in a reference to the Chinese Communist Party. "If the SIM cards are operationally standard, then it is a failure of security not to have removed them to protect the data of our government and sensitive government sites."

"It's clear with this revelation that parliamentarians may want to look more broadly at other technology products being imported from China, and the risks and vulnerabilities," Sam Goodman, policy and advocacy director of the London-based rights group Hong Kong Watch told Radio Free Asia.

"[The risk is of] the Chinese government just being able to spy, not just on officials, but on human rights activists, dissidents in exile in the U.K., but also ordinary citizens," Goodman said.

Hikvision's 'intrusive infrastructure'

Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael told parliament on Jan. 9 that Chinese surveillance equipment manufacturer Hikvision had built "the most incredibly intrusive infrastructure that was used to oppress the Uyghur population [in Xinjiang] and the company now operates widely in this country."

He said he had spotted a Hikvision surveillance camera in his constituency in the remote Orkney island group.

"Beyond any shadow of a doubt, if Hikvision has now got to St. Boniface Kirk in Papa Westray, it is pretty well everywhere, and that is something to which we need to attend, because, as with so many other technological developments, we have no idea where the data could get to through the back door," he said.

National security officials on the democratic island of Taiwan in October blamed surveillance cameras made by China's Huawei on the leaking of sensitive information about a visit to Thailand by its intelligence chief.

A Twitter account using the handle @andreny45652235 tweeted on Sept. 12 photos of Taiwan national security director Chen Ming-tong at the airport, along with an official customs document and a hotel bill. The same post was also shared on Facebook. 

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

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