SAN FRANCISCO — An advocacy group that accuses Cisco Systems of aiding the Chinese government in monitoring and apprehending members of the banned Falun Gong organization said Friday that it had new evidence to suggest that Cisco specifically tailored its technology for that purpose.
The Human Rights Law Foundation, based in Washington, sued Cisco, a California-based manufacturer of networking equipment, last May in the Federal District Court in San Jose, under a statute that allows American companies to be sued for violations of human rights abroad. The suit accused Cisco of having helped China build a firewall, known widely as the Golden Shield, to censor the Internet and keep tabs on dissidents. Cisco at the time said it had made nothing special for China.
On Friday afternoon, the group amended its original complaint, saying it had evidence showing that Cisco customized its products specifically to help Beijing go after members of the religious group Falun Gong.
A Cisco spokeswoman, Kristin Carvell, said company officials were reviewing the amended complaint and could offer no further comment.
The group’s evidence includes documents that the group says were part of Cisco’s marketing pitch to Chinese organizations and government agencies, including a page from a PowerPoint presentation boasting that Cisco’s technology can “recognize over 90% of Falun Gong pictures” in e-mail traffic. Another document, which the group says was used by Cisco’s sales teams, described a broad public security database that would contain information on Chinese citizens, including “key personnel of ‘Falun Gong’ evil cult organization.” That database would in turn be connected to a system of firewalls and monitoring systems that could be used to filter content that the Chinese government considers to be sensitive. It is not clear if such a system was ever built, and it was not possible to verify the authenticity of the documents.
According to one of the documents, the database would also contain data on Chinese citizens leaving the country, major criminal cases and motor vehicle information, and it would be connected to a video surveillance system. The Wall Street Journal reported in July that Cisco was supplying some equipment for a citywide video surveillance system in Chongqing, China.
Cisco, for its part, said that it doesn’t typically build databases, and that as a matter of policy it does not sell video surveillance cameras or equipment to China.
Beyond the allegations made in this case lies a broader question about how technology tools can be used by repressive governments. Cisco’s offerings, for instance, include tools that can track traffic going in and out of a personal computer. In principle, that equipment can be used to monitor criminals trying to steal proprietary information, or it can be used to track communications by dissidents in repressive countries. The question this lawsuit raises is whether Cisco tailored its standard suite of tools to meet specific Chinese demands.
The suit contends that the authorities tracked Falun Gong members on the Internet using the Golden Shield and then apprehended them. Some were arrested and tortured, and one member was beaten to death, the lawsuit says.
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