Cisco draws flak for China surveillance project

Despite facing harsh criticism in North America, Cisco is reportedly pushing ahead with plans to aid China in keeping its bustling population in check – with a wide surveillance network.

There is a loophole in the United States that says while companies may not provide or sell products to keep tabs on criminals, such as fingerprinting equipment, they are free to sell technology which could be exploited to do so. Think security cameras. 

The Wall Street Journal has looked over the proposed Peaceful Chongqing project. Terms of the project include western companies exporting equipment to, er, prevent crime. But China’s definitions of crime are loose, with recent proof easily found in the high-profile Ai Weiwei arrest.

Although he was eventually freed for his “tax crimes” it is hard not to draw a link between his political activism and an arrest.

Chongqing will see 500,000 security cameras installed across the city, and the WSJ says it’s “among the largest and most sophisticated” surveillance projects in China – and maybe even the world. 

Cisco insists it will not be supplying customised technology to crack down on criminals, nor does it flog video cameras. But it is not clear on compliance, and whether or not the kit could be modified or customised when it reaches those shores.

The Wall Street Journal’s scoop is here, and goes into great detail. It also mentions other potential bidders as HP – ex-SAP Action Man Leo Apotheker recently took a gushing tour of China and announced commitments to infrastructure, R&D, etc. Coincidence? Who knows.

The biggest thorn in the side of sceptical public and politicos will be the seemingly two-faced nature of potential deals. As Nokia Siemens Network received rightful scrutiny for selling surveillance equipment to Iran used to hunt dissidents – now spun off into a company called Trovicor – shouldn’t other companies selling equipment which could potentially be used in a similar way in China face similar criticism?

Or do the benefits of cut-throat capitalism outweigh any moral grey-areas? As companies adhere to and are bound by EU and US law, it certainly sends a mixed message to reach into the Chinese treasury for a quick buck. 

Daniel Hamilton, director at Big Brother Watch, tells us he’s outraged at the prospect. Speaking to TechEye, he says: “While it’s in the interests of Western companies to trade with China, actively assisting the regime in its efforts to control its citizens is nothing short of shameful.

“Beyond the stories of grandiose economic developments and promises of human rights reforms, China remains a fascist dictatorship in which pro-democracy activists are brutalised and freedom of speech is crushed.

“Firms involved in selling surveillance equipment to vile dictatorships such as that in force in China should be ashamed of themselves”.

Calling China a vile dictatorship is arguably a point of preference. In terms of trade, it’s a powerhouse, and the Western world must continue to adapt to that fact. Human rights activists rightly point out violations which are either made public or more commonly swept under its vast-reaching rug.

What does trading in equipment for such potential uses say about a company digging its heels into, and currying favour with, Beijing? Hamilton believes that while plenty of equipment is subject to regulation in the UK and across the EU, “no such rules exist in China.”

“The dictatorship will be free to use this kit as they wish;” he says, “including pursuing political vendettas against opponents of their rule.” “In trading with China, companies selling surveillance equipment must decide if they are content to put commercial interests above the human rights of 1.3 billion people.  

“If they choose the latter path, they may find many consumers in the west vote with their feet and cease using their services.”