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Government Deadline Approaches To Ban Chinese-Made Surveillance Cameras


Countless federal agencies, military bases and other government buildings are facing a looming deadline. Starting next week, they will be barred from buying Chinese-made surveillance equipment. This ban was tucked into a provision of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. But there's confusion over what the law means, how it affects equipment that's already in use and how it can be implemented on time. Here's more from NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Any time you pass through security at a government building, you'll see them - small surveillance cameras watching you. They've become an accepted part of our lives. There's a good chance those cameras are made by a Chinese company or have Chinese components in them. They're meant to be providing security, but Congress sees them as a way for China to spy on the U.S.

Peter Kusnic is a tech writer with Freedonia Group, a business research organization.

PETER KUSNIC: The very close relationship between the Chinese government and its tech sector raises these concerns that these security cameras can be used to hack into American life.

NORTHAM: Now Congress is putting the brakes on federal agencies using the Chinese surveillance cameras made by companies such as Hikvision, which is partially owned by the Chinese government. Despite an upcoming deadline, there are thousands of these cameras still installed across the country, says Katherine Gronberg with ForeScout Technologies, an IT security firm whose clients include the Defense Department and other federal agencies. Gronberg says her company recently did what she calls a small sampling of some government offices.

KATHERINE GRONBERG: We found more than 1,700 of the two varieties of banned cameras. We don't know what agencies those were at, but 1,700 is a lot. They'll have to be removed by mid-August.

WILL CARTER: There is zero chance that this law could be enacted fully and implemented fully by August 13.

NORTHAM: That's Will Carter, a Chinese tech specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says many federal agencies have waited until the eleventh hour to take action.

CARTER: I get the sense that part of it is that people thought that this was so impractical that someone would do something about it. The other thing is - you have to keep in mind that with all of the different provisions of that bill, many people didn't realize that this was in there or that it impacted them.

NORTHAM: For its part, Hikvision says it's committed to complying with U.S. laws. The ban is in line with the broader U.S. clampdown on Chinese tech companies. That includes blacklisting telecommunications giant Huawei in May. Rick Williams is the general manager of Selcom, a security contractor company in Selma, Ala., that often uses Hikvision equipment. He says the prohibition on the cameras is confusing because it's not clear whether it applies to just new purchases or whether all of the existing Hikvision cameras need to be ripped out and replaced.

RICK WILLIAMS: They're saying - well, that's an assumption that that equipment has to come out. You just replace that equipment later - you know, two years from now, when it's time to replace a piece of equipment. It makes no sense.

NORTHAM: Will Carter, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says if the Chinese-made cameras are considered a national security threat, then they should come out.

CARTER: If you look at the reasoning behind it - the concerns that Chinese surveillance products could be used by the Chinese government for espionage - the logic would say you should rip out what's already in place. You know, just because they're already in our federal networks or in government buildings doesn't mean we should be any more comfortable with them than new ones that we buy.

NORTHAM: But security contractor Williams says if he has to replace cameras, it likely won't make much difference if he's using Hikvision or another brand. He says Hikvision sells components or original equipment for over 80 separate companies.

WILLIAMS: I can remove a Hikvision camera, reach down in a box, pick up one that says Panasonic on it - or Samsung - stick it in the corner, and that's OK - even though it came from the exact same manufacturer.

NORTHAM: Last month, Williams attended a public hearing hosted by the General Services Administration. He was looking for clarity about the prohibition on cameras but didn't get any. Repeated requests to the GSA for comment went unanswered. With the August 13 deadline approaching, it's still unclear when or who will be making a decision about what to do with thousands of Chinese-made surveillance cameras.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.