'China isn't interested in following me around': Defence secretary Ben Wallace plays down Beijing spy device threat

15 February 2023, 08:47 | Updated: 15 February 2023, 09:38

Ben Wallace played down the threat of Chinese spies hacking CCTV cameras
Ben Wallace played down the threat of Chinese spies hacking CCTV cameras. Picture: LBC/Getty

By Kit Heren

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has downplayed the threat of Chinese spies hacking into CCTV and personal devices to spy on him, or other British citizens.

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Mr Wallace told LBC's Nick Ferrari on Wednesday that most people were more likely to be hacked by criminals than by states like China, and advised "private citizens" to make sure they have proper cyber security in place.

It comes after a British security watchdog warned that police forces in the UK are "shot through with Chinese surveillance cameras", following a survey.

But Mr Wallace joked: "I'm not sure China is really that interested in following me around Preston North and Wyre," referring to his parliamentary constituency.

He added that Beijing's spies would be interested in the defence programmes that he runs as the secretary of state, pointing out that the government was protecting these "vulnerabilities".

"It's not new that cheap technology is vulnerable, whether it's made in China or anywhere else," he told Nick.

"We can all go into our shops now and buy pretty reasonable, compared to the old days of CCTV, cameras and we all have in our houses the 'internet of things'.

"And if we don't even take the most basic precautions like changing the administrative passwords on them, we can be hacked. You're more likely to be a hacked by a criminal than you are [by] a state.

Asked by Nick if he needed to be concerned about spies tracking his movements in his constituency, or in the south-east London area of Blackheath, the defence secretary said: "No offence to you Nick, or no offence to me... I'm not sure China is really that interested in following me around Preston North and Wyre or you around Blackheath.

Defence secretary Ben Wallace
Defence secretary Ben Wallace. Picture: Getty

"But they are interested obviously in my sensitive networks and my defence programmes and my industry - and that's why we put the focus in our areas on getting rid of certain vulnerabilities like Huawei, which is very important to get out of our network."

"And I think that's the question for everyone when you're buying this equipment.

"Depending on who you are - whether you're a private citizen trying to protect your house, or whether you're a government institution, you should ask yourself what is the balance between the risk you're prepared to take, and who is after your information."

Read more: Chinese balloon sensor recovered from the ocean, US says, with hunt for others ongoing as Beijing denies spy claims

Read more: 'We will do whatever it takes': Rishi Sunak pledges to shoot down spy balloons as US warns of growing threat from China

Fraser Sampson, the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, said this week: "It is abundantly clear from this detailed analysis of the survey results that the police estate in the UK is shot through with Chinese surveillance cameras.

"It is also clear that the forces deploying this equipment are generally aware that there are security and ethical concerns about the companies that supply their kit."

He added: "There has been a lot in the news in recent days about how concerned we should be about Chinese spy balloons 60,000 feet up in the sky."I do not understand why we are not at least as concerned about the Chinese cameras six feet above our head in the street and elsewhere."

Mr Wallace said he 'would not hesitate' to protect national security if threatened by a Chinese balloon
Mr Wallace said he 'would not hesitate' to protect national security if threatened by a Chinese balloon. Picture: Getty

It came after the US shot down several Chinese balloons suspected of being spy devices when they flew into its airspace. One of the balloons has already been recovered and officials are examining the structure.

Asked by Nick if he would shoot down a Chinese balloon if it came over the UK, Mr Wallace said: "First and foremost we're going to learn about the technology and the debris that the Americans have collected, and are collecting".

He added that "it's not rare for balloons to be floating up there" with Russian balloons often used to distract air radar at that altitude.

"I think the point is everything's on the table - if we thought it was a threat to our population or indeed our national security, and we thought we could do something about that safely... of course I wouldn't hesitate to take the right decision to protect us."

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