Calls for UK ban on all Chinese data firms after leak reveals 40,000 Britons in intelligence files

Tony Diver
·3 min read
Sir Iain Duncan Smith called for all Chinese tech firms to be banned -  Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg
Sir Iain Duncan Smith called for all Chinese tech firms to be banned - Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

No Chinese company dealing with data should be allowed to operate in the UK, a senior Conservative MP has said, following revelations that a firm has collected intelligence on 40,000 people in Britain.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said all Chinese internet and data companies should be ejected from the UK to protect British citizens' cyber security.

"The government should automatically ban any Chinese owned companies that are involved in the internet or the use of data,” he told The Telegraph.

Sir Iain’s comments came after The Telegraph revealed a Chinese technology company, Zhenhua Data, has compiled an intelligence database of British citizens including members of Parliament, royals and convicts.

Hundreds of thousands of social media posts, online biographies and newspaper records on British citizens have been collected and are thought to have been supplied to Chinese intelligence agencies.

Experts said the leak showed the Chinese state was using ostensibly private companies as listening posts for its secret services.

Although Zhenhua does not have an office in the UK, Sir Iain said the database showed that other Chinese data companies with plans to expand should be automatically banned from operating here.

Boris Johnson has already committed to expelling equipment from the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei from the UK's networks, while ByteDance, the owner of the social media app TikTok, has abandoned plans to establish an office in the UK amid controversy over its links to the Chinese state.  

"Straight away, ByteDance should be banned and TikTok should not be allowed to set up their headquarters here," Sir Iain said.   "[The Government] needs to look again at how quickly they can get Huawei out of their system.

“There is a whole range of things they need to do, which is to say: ‘We now recognise that China poses the biggest threat to democracy and human rights than anywhere else.’”

The Zhenhua database revealed on Monday by The Telegraph contains information about the families and children of China critics in the UK, including Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr Tugendhat said he did not support a blanket ban on Chinese data companies, but has “huge concerns” about ByteDance.

A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last year said ByteDance was working with security forces to facilitate human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims - a claim the company denies.

Mr Tugendhat said TikTok should not be allowed to set up an office in the UK if it continues to be operated by its Chinese parent company.

Bob Seely, the MP for the Isle of Wight, said the Zhenhua files showed the Government must do more to understand the threat of data technology used by China.

“This is not just an authoritarian state issue, but it is made much worse by the fact that China is doing it, and is effectively globalising its surveillance state,” he said.

“Whether it’s hoovering up information on us or whether it’s spying on their own people, I think we’re really behind the curve on this.”

Mr Seely suggested the Government should set up a royal commission or inquiry to analyse data privacy issues.

“I think it’s breathtakingly naive of us [...] and I just think there are all these 21st century problems our state hasn’t got its head around,” he said.

Dr Alan Mendoza, executive director of the Henry Jackson Society, said: “While the U.K. hands out massive fines to companies that hold private data without good cause, in China it’s not so much a commodity, as an instrument of state power. There’s no point protecting our privacy at home, only to see it violated in Beijing.

“Given grave concerns about the ability of the Chinese state to obtain data held by Chinese companies, it stands to reason that we should be wary of allowing any such companies to operate in the UK."