Court Lets Cisco Systems Off the Hook for Helping China Detain, Torture Religious Minorities – EFF
The case seems high tech—it’s about Cisco’s Golden Shield, a set of sophisticated technologies that include specific purpose-built parts for persecution of the Falun Gong. But it’s actually fairly simple: at what point does a company that intentionally builds tools that are specially designed for governmental human rights abuses become liable for the use of those tools for their intended (and known) purposes?
No tech company should be held accountable when governments misuse general use products to engage in human rights abuses. This isn’t about bare routers or server logs. The case alleged and presented some strong early evidence that Cisco did far more – including:
- A library of carefully analyzed patterns of Falun Gong Internet activity (or “signatures”) that enable the Chinese government to uniquely identify Falun Gong Internet users;
- Highly advanced video and image analyzers that Cisco marketed as the “only product capable of recognizing over 90% of Falun Gong pictorial information;”
- Several log/alert systems that provide the Chinese government with real time monitoring and notification based on Falun Gong Internet traffic patterns;
- Applications for storing data profiles on individual Falun Gong practitioners for use during interrogation and “forced conversion” (i.e., torture);
It also included a presentation by Cisco to the Chinese authorities highlighting the special tools Cisco offered for persecuting what it called “Falun Gong evil religion.” Using such terms about any ethnic or religious group in an internal presentation regarding a government project should be a red flag for anyone concerned about human rights.
The court acknowledged these allegations, noting that the complaint alleges “individual features customized and designed specifically to find, track and suppress Falun Gong,” and that the tools were actually used for those purposes: “Golden Shield provided the means by which all the Plaintiffs were tracked, detained and tortured.” The complaint also alleged that much of Cisco’s work building the specific tools to target this religious minority was conducted from its San Jose offices.
In an ordinary lawsuit, those allegations, which are credible and in some places confirmed, would be enough to let a party get into the evidence phase of a case, passing a motion to dismiss. Think about federal criminal law, where all that is needed for a criminal conspiracy is an agreement to commit a crime and an overt act. Similarly, in patent and copyright law, the standard of “inducement” liability allows responsibility for someone else’s actions when someone “distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement.” And there is no question that some Cisco’s “overt acts” and “affirmative expressions” to foster human rights abuses—like designing and developing Falun Gong identification and tracking modules—took place in San Jose.
As a great exporter of advanced technology, American companies like Cisco can’t plead ignorance about the ways in which our technology is used when they specifically and knowingly build the tools for those uses. And when a company like Cisco customizes and crafts technology for an authoritarian regime, it has a responsibility to consider the very human consequences of its actions.
Take home message:
If Cisco are assisting China, then they are definitely assisting the NSA – and that means they’re tracking YOU. Let’s just hope that you don’t have any religious or political belief system, or you’re in big trouble, thanks to Cisco.