The Attorney General has sought advice on a government-wide ban of surveillance equipment linked to the Chinese Communist Party after an unofficial audit found at least 900 devices being used at federal departments and agencies.
The Albanese government is likely to accept the advice if it recommends a government-wide ban, following similar bans by the UK and US government.
The US and UK effectively banned the use surveillance equipment from prominent Chinese camera makers Hikvision and Dahua on government buildings last year, saying it presents an unacceptable risk to national security.
The concerns stem from the legal requirement in China for companies to co-operate with Chinese intelligence agencies if requested to hand over data.
The move triggered scrutiny of the Australian government’s use of the Chinese manufacturers equipment, with Liberal Senator James Patterson seeking information from every government portfolio about their agencies’ use of Hikvision and Dahua.
The responses have revealed at least 913 of the cameras, intercoms, and entry systems are in use across 250 sites. This includes sensitive agencies like Defence and Foreign Affairs.
Security agencies began restricting the use of Hikvision and Dahua products last year because of similar concerns to the UK and US about risks to national security.
At the time, the Albanese government had not sort specific advice on banning Hikvision and Dahua across government, but Home Affairs began proactively preparing advice on the AUKUS partners’ bans.
On Thursday, Defence minister Richard Marles confirmed the Department of Defence was conducting an assessment of the surveillance technology it had in use and would remove any Hikvision or Dahua cameras.
Later in the Senate, representing the Home Affairs minister, Labor’s Murray Watt revealed Attorney General Mark Dreyfus is seeking advice on if a government-wide ban on the devices is “required to address protected security risks”.
Mr Watt said the ban, if enacted, would include “every part of government and every agency”.
“If that advice says that that [ban] is necessary, then I have no doubt that we will take that action,” Mr Watt said.
Mr Patterson, who has led the scrutiny of the use of the Chinese-made devices for months, this week claimed the responses to his questions showed the Commonwealth is “riddled with CCP spyware”.
“We urgently need a plan from the Albanese government to rip every one of these devices out of Australian government departments and agencies,” he said.
Mr Watt sought to lay blame for the issue on the Coalition, which was in government when the devices were installed.
“Why were these matters not serious enough for the former government to do something about them when they actually had the opportunity to do so, when these cameras were actually being installed?” he said.
“It’s all very well to be wise after the event and ask questions about things that happened when you were in government but I would suggest that the time to actually do something about it is when you’re in government making the decisions to instal the cameras.”
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