Conor Healy is director of government research at security and surveillance research group IPVM. Margaret McCuaig-Johnston is a former senior federal official, and senior fellow at the Graduate School of Public & International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.
Last week, Ottawa was united in shock over revelations that the RCMP entrusted its critical radio communications systems to Sinclair Technologies, a subsidiary of China’s Hytera Communications Corp. A Chinese state-backed firm, Hytera’s record includes everything from lying to U.S. regulators about its Chinese Communist Party ties to criminal corporate espionage charges. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the other party leaders all agreed: The decision was baffling.
But nobody should be surprised. This is not the first time that Canada has found itself with unwanted Chinese surveillance technology. Without a major status quo shift, it won’t be the last.
In 2020, Nuctech, a Chinese X-ray equipment manufacturer with ties to Chinese Communist Party elite, won a $6.8-million security contract for 170 Canadian embassies and consulates worldwide. Later cancelled, it led a parliamentary committee to conclude that a national security lens should be applied to future decisions. Then came the news that 86 per cent of Canada’s visa staff in Beijing were employed indirectly by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, that is, the police – not reassuring for human-rights activists and others hoping to come to Canada.
Video cameras made by China’s Dahua/Lorex and Hikvision can be found on government buildings and in our major cities. Both are Chinese military companies, and have staggering cybersecurity records in the West, including deliberate backdoors and a long list of critical vulnerabilities. Security technology researchers at IPVM created an interactive map demonstrating one of many ways China can exploit these devices: Simply hover over one of thousands of Hikvision cameras, and you can see what it sees. Many Canadians are captured by such cameras multiple times each day.
On Huawei, we are years behind our allies. Huawei 5G equipment was installed in Telus’ infrastructure in 2020 and can remain for now because the government took until May, 2022, to issue a ban, and gave two additional years for removal. This decision should have been made in 2018, as it was in Australia.
These are severe risks for Canada. We saw how brazen China can be in the recent revelations that it has secretly operated illegal police forces around the world, including five stations in Canada. This is what China does – it pushes the envelope as far as it can, including by leveraging its technology multinationals for espionage. Looking at China through this lens is not xenophobia, it is reality.
If any good comes of the RCMP scandal, it will be a long-overdue reckoning on Chinese technology companies in Canada. Fortunately, there are concrete actions the government can, and must, now take.
First, the government must cancel Sinclair’s contract and remove already-installed equipment. The contract has been suspended, but the government hasn’t said yet whether it will be cancelled permanently.
Second, the government must review the procurement practices that allowed this contract to happen with no national security assessment, and implement policy changes that ensure it never happens again. A good place to start is the comprehensive recommendations the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates issued after reviewing the Nuctech contract.
Third, the government must issue an immediate, across-the-board freeze on federal procurement from the following Chinese companies and their subsidiaries: Dahua (Lorex), Hikvision, Huawei, Hytera, and ZTE. Since 2018, inquiries by various U.S. agencies, think tanks, and news media have concluded that these companies pose a national security risk. Canada has enough evidence to discontinue purchases and remove existing equipment from government property.
Finally, the government must conduct an inquiry into the Canadian operations of these five companies, with a focus on Dahua and Hikvision, whose products are far more widespread in Canada than those of Hytera or Huawei. In 2018, Dahua purchased Canadian company Lorex, which it now uses to relabel its own products in Canada under the Lorex brand and sell them to unknowing buyers across North America including, in multiple instances, the U.S. military.
The RCMP’s decision on Sinclair is the predictable outcome of years of inaction on these issues, beginning with the federal government allowing the sale of Norsat (and therefore its subsidiary Sinclair) to Hytera in 2017 without a full national security review. This was at a time when the federal government hoped to negotiate a free-trade agreement with China, and our ambassador John McCallum wanted “more, more, more” from China.
We now know this was a fantasy, and policies should reflect the new reality. The government’s recently released Indo-Pacific Strategy demonstrates a new awareness of China as aggressive and coercive. Surveillance technology is one of China’s many tools, and should not be welcome in Canada.