Rights Group Says Cisco Aided Chinese Persecution

Cisco knowingly provided the Chinese government with technology to spy on Falun Gong members, say critics

A human rights group has reportedly uncovered new evidence that networking giant Cisco customised its technology to help the Chinese government monitor and apprehend members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

The Human Rights Law Foundation (HRLF), based in Washington, filed a lawsuit back in May, accusing Cisco of developing and maintaining specialised software and hardware for the Chinese authorities – even though it knew the technology would be used to persecute followers of the Falun Gong movement, which has been outlawed in China. The lawsuit invokes a law that allows US companies to be sued for violations of human rights abroad.

Cisco’s CEO John Chambers and senior staff of the company’s Chinese subsidiary are also accused of taking a major role in the development of a firewall known as the “Golden Shield Project,” in a separate class-action case brought on behalf of Chinese political prisoners. The Golden Shield makes up part of the Great Firewall of China, so-called because of the way it ring-fences, monitors and controls Internet traffic across the nation’s public network.

No customised equipment

Cisco has repeatedly denied that any customised equipment was supplied to China to facilitate blocking or surveillance of users.

“Equipment supplied to China is the same equipment we provide worldwide, which includes industry-standard network management capabilities which are the same as those used by public libraries in the US that allow them to block inappropriate content for children,” said Cisco general counsel Mark Chandler in a June blog post.

However, the HRLF has now amended its complaint with the US District Court, to include new evidence that Cisco tailored its technology specifically to help the government in Beijing spy on Falun Gong members.

The evidence cites a PowerPoint presentation in which company marketers boasted that their products could “recognise over 90 percent of Falun Gong pictures” in email traffic, according to The New York Times. A separate document used by members of Cisco’s sales team reportedly described a database that could be connected to the company’s firewall products to monitor Falun Gong members and filter content.

Cisco is also thought to have trained Chinese officials in how to surveil web users.

Falun Gong members tortured

Falun Gong is a system of beliefs and practices based on Buddhist principles but also drawing on concepts enshrined in Taoism and Confucianism. The movement was founded in China by Li Hongzhi in 1992, and outlawed in 1999 for “engaging in illegal activities, advocating superstition and spreading fallacies, hoodwinking people, inciting and creating disturbances, and jeopardising social stability”.

The Chinese government reportedly used the Golden Shield to track Falun Gong members on the Internet and apprehend them. Some were arrested and tortured, and one member was beaten to death, according to the lawsuit.

“As we said in May when the lawsuit was filed, there is no basis for these allegations against Cisco, and we intend to vigorously defend against them,” a Cisco spokesperson said in a statement to eWEEK Europe. “Cisco does not operate networks in China or elsewhere, nor does Cisco customise our products in any way that would facilitate censorship or repression.”

The case could have far-reaching consequences for the use of tracking and monitoring technology by repressive governments. Cisco’s offerings, for example, include tools that can track traffic going in and out of a personal computer, which could potentially be used to track communications.