Cisco Accused of Helping China Track Falun Gong Followers

Falun Gong members have filed a federal lawsuit against Cisco Systems in San Jose, CA charging that they worked with the Chinese government to track and monitor Falun Gong members. From Mercury News:

Several followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement have filed a lawsuit accusing Cisco Systems (CSCO) of helping the Chinese government identify and persecute members of their group by building a computer system that tracked their Internet activity.

Cisco denied the allegations in a statement responding to the lawsuit, saying it only sold standard networking equipment and did not provide any customized technology for the Chinese system.

The lawsuit was filed last week in San Jose’s federal court by the Washington-based Human Rights Law Foundation and other attorneys representing several Falun Gong members living in China and the United States.

The suit alleges that Cisco knowingly helped design and maintain a “censorship and surveillance” network known as the “Golden Shield,” which Chinese security officials used to track and identify dissidents and members of banned groups, such as Falun Gong, “for the specific purpose of subjecting them to gross human rights abuses” including torture and “extrajudicial killing.”

A leaked internal presentation from 2008 reveals that Cisco did plan to aid the Chinese government with its Internet censorship. However, as of yet there is no clear indication that Cisco customized a monitoring system for the Chinese government. From Wired Magazine:

The 90-page document is an internal presentation that Cisco engineers and staffers in China mulled over in 2002 as the central government was upgrading its local, state and provincial public safety and security network infrastructure. Under the category “Cisco Opportunities,” the document provides bullet point suggestions for how it might service China’s censorship system called the “Golden Shield”, and better known in the West as the Great Firewall of China.

The document is the first evidence that the networking giant has marketed its routers to China specifically as a tool of repression. It reinforces the  double-edged role that Americans’ technological ingenuity plays in the rest of the world. Companies including Cisco, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google have faced criticism for cooperating to various degrees with the repressive Chinese regime, and the document leak on Monday came one day before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing into U.S. technology companies’ participation in foreign government censorship programs.

“If you know ahead of time that a sale could lead to human rights violations, and there’s no way of mitigating that, maybe you shouldn’t offer it to that entity,” says Arvind Ganesan, a director at the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, who called on Cisco to conduct a global audit for similar marketing behavior.

One of Golden Shield’s stated goals in the Cisco presentation was to
“combat ‘Falun Gong’ evil religion and other hostiles,” — a statement that was attributed to Runsen Li, the Chinese government information technology chief in charge of developing the project.

Mark Chandler, Cisco’s senior vice president of legal services, said during the Tuesday Senate hearing that he was “appalled” and “disappointed” when he saw that quote in the presentation.

Cisco went on to sell about $100,000 worth of routers and switches that became part of the Golden Shield project, Alberstein said. But he insisted the company did not customize them for China’s censorship needs.

However, the new lawsuit against Cisco claims there is evidence that Cisco did design a customized tracking system for the Chinese government.From the New York Times:

Terri Marsh, a lawyer for the Human Rights Law Foundation in Washington, said the group had compiled detailed information about Cisco’s role in the design of Chinese information centers that host Falun Gong database applications connected to network surveillance and tracking systems. This information will be disclosed in court during the discovery phase of the trial, Ms. Marsh said.

The lawsuit states that other documents lay out design suggestions to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security on how to pursue dissidents effectively.

The lawsuit is based on the Alien Torts Statute, a federal law that permits foreign nationals to bring lawsuits in United States federal court claiming violations of international law. They also have brought charges under the Torture Victim Protection Act and under California state law.

The suit names three Falun Gong members, Ivy He, of Canada; Liu Guifu, of New York State; and Charles Lee, an American citizen who was arrested when he went to China in 2003 and was held until 2006. It also is brought on behalf of eight unidentified Chinese citizens, who include those who were tortured and killed or are missing.