While Vodafone has been vocal about the supposed benefits their merger with Three will present to UK’s economy, Unite the union has thrown a curveball, amassing a comprehensive report insinuating that this merge might inadvertently give China access to sensitive UK government information. With ties to CK Group, the group controlling Three, Unite postulates that the merger might jeopardize the privacy of 27 million consumers.
In the report, Unite claims that prominent executives in CK Group hold notable positions in Chinese government committees and are connected to the Chinese political elite. The controlling Li family’s support for the National Security Law (NSL), backs Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive, John Lee. This legislation confers the police power to supervise telecommunications in Hong Kong.
In Britain, Three isn’t currently a public sector supplier. Nonetheless, Vodafone holds this distinction, serving renowned government clients such as the NHS, the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Defence. As such, Unite postulates that CK Group might gain access to sensitive government communications after the merger, despite possible assurances to the contrary.
“Internal corporate policies and local legislation will do little to prevent nation-state intelligence operations from utilizing any data access that company mergers and purchases might provide,” cautioned technology policy expert, Dr. Alexi Drew. “If a merger avails the technical or human resources needed to collect valuable data, national security services, whether Chinese or otherwise, will likely utilize it.”
As part of its report, Unite presented a timeline showcasing meetings between CK executives including Victor Li and Canning Fok, along with UK government officials. These meetings happened in the run-up to the merging announcement between Vodafone and Three.
The union emphasized the remuneration received by Conservative MPs, Brandon Lewis, and Chris Grayling for advisory roles in other CK Group enterprises. Unite also raised concerns about the switching overseeing the merger by the Investment Security Unit (ISU) from the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy to the Cabinet Office. Critics claim this move helps the government bypass examination.
Unite cited a recent report by the Intelligence and Security Committee which expressed serious concern about this relocation. “Effective parliament oversight isn’t an ‘optional extra’ but rather, a crucial safety measure in any functioning parliamentary democracy,” the report expounded.
While Unite hasn’t exactly called for the merger’s blocking, it labels it dangerous and demands increased supervision.
“Rishi Sunak and the conservative government pledge to combat Chinese national security threats. But when it involves CK Group and this merger, they’re rolling out the red carpet,” said Unite’s executive head of operations Gail Cartmail. The consistency in comparison with a hard-line approach adopted toward other Chinese companies such as Huawei can definitely raise eyebrows.
Vodafone and Three will ostensibly downplay the links to Beijing, pontificating on their 20-year record of successfully offering mobile services to UK consumers without sparking any significant national security crises. However, until the government makes its position clear, this issue will likely continue to pressure Voda-Three.