Ministers pledge to remove Chinese tech from government sites

Move comes alongside plan to create national security-focused procurement team

Credit: Vitor Dutra Kaosnoff/Pixabay

Ministers have pledged to create a plan and set a deadline for removing from government locations of “surveillance equipment” manufactured by China-based companies.

The Cabinet Office announced this week that officials will, in due course, “publish a timeline” for the targeted removal from “sensitive government sites” of tech that could be used for surveillance and was created by firms that are “companies subject to China’s National Intelligence Law”.

The law in question has been reported to contain provisions by which Chinese authorities could compel firms registered in the country to covertly hand over customer communications data to government agencies.

Concerns about the implications of the law were a key factor in UK authorities’ – somewhat belated – decision to ban the use of all Huawei kit in 5G network infrastructure and, latterly, to prohibit the use of TikTok in many public buildings, including the Scottish and Westminster parliaments.

In an opinion piece originally published in The Times this week, Cabinet Office ministers Jeremy Quin and Alex Burghart wrote: “We have already taken firm action in this area. Last year we halted the installation of such equipment on sensitive government sites and asked departments to consider their removal. By publicly committing to this timeline, we are providing reassurance and urgency around the removal plans.”

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The plans to strip out Chinese tech come during the week in which the home secretary set out plans to amend UK surveillance laws so as to give authorities greater powers to demand data from telecoms firms – including a tightening of the terms of the Investigatory Powers Act to ensure to ensure it can be applied, where necessary, to overseas-based companies delivering services in the UK.

Other proposed changes to the act would mean companies could be compelled to comply with a request for access to citizens’ communications – even if they continuing to appeal the request through official channels. Operators could also be legally required to keep government informed of any “planned changes to their service that could have a negative impact” on law enforcement’s ability to requisition data.

‘Beyond the front line’
Alongside the intended measures against Chinese firms currently providing tech to government, ministers announced it will tweak the Procurement Bill with amendments intended to better protect UK infrastructure and interests.

The updated law will provide for the creation of Cabinet Office-based National Security Unit for Procurement – a team which will have a remit to “investigate suppliers who may pose a risk to national security, and assess whether companies should be barred” from all public sector contracts.

Powers will also created to enable officials to ban providers from particular sectors considered sensitive – such as defence or intelligence – while permitting them to continue to bid for deals in areas considered “non-sensitive”.

The Cabinet Office indicated that the national security team will bring together a “range of expertise” from across government and will work collaboratively with intelligence agencies. The unit will be tasked with “proactively monitoring the supplier landscape” and making recommendations to ministers regarding firms that ought to be further investigated – and potentially banned from bidding on future opportunities.

The team will be on the looking for “emerging threats, such as companies looking to win public contracts in order to gain access to sensitive information or sites which could be used to compromise government and society”.

“Protecting the nation’s security has always been government’s primary responsibility,” Quin and Burghart wrote. “In an increasingly interconnected world, defending the realm goes well beyond the ‘front line’. It means using every lever of government to further our nation’s security and protect us from ever increasing threats. We know that states across the world increasingly are using the tools at their disposal to project their influence and potentially threaten our security. These hybrid threats include using economic channels to attempt to undermine and compromise our government and society.”

The Procurement Bill is slated to go through the House Of Commons report stage next week.

Beyond the new national security-focused measures, the legislation is intended to make it easy to exclude “underperforming suppliers” from future deals, via the creation of a new “debarment register”. Government also claims that the law will open up greater opportunities for SME providers improve transparency via ensuring that “everyone will have access to public procurement data”.

The recent effective closure of the Digital Marketplace platform was seen by many as a backward step on both these fronts. Following much criticism of the move, the Crown Commercial Service told PublicTechnology it recognised many suppliers and other onlookers saw the platform’s shutdown as a “retrograde step” – but pledged that it would ultimately “reinstate transparency”.

It also talked up the benefits of the new digital Contract Award Service.

“Contract Award Service provides a more holistic end-to-end procurement experience for buyers than the Digital Marketplace ever provided,” it said. “This is significant for our buyers, and ultimately suppliers, as it will mean faster procurement timelines and single system access for the entire procurement process. We have to balance suppliers and buyers needs. In order to achieve this we built CAS to interface to the e-sourcing platform, Jaggaer. This is a widely used platform within the public sector.”

CCS added: “As a result of moving to a commercially available off the shelf product this has meant the supplier interface is no longer simplified as it was in the Digital Marketplace. We recognise that for some suppliers, the user experience has changed compared to that on the Digital Marketplace. We will continue to iteratively improve CAS through user research and will be speaking with industry representatives in the near future about the user experience and our future iterations of the CAS platform.”

Sam Trendall

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