EFF Wants Cisco Punished for Aiding Human Rights Abuses in China

Published: January 15, 2016 11:06 PM /


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The Electronic Frontier Foundation is asking a federal appeals court to reinstate a lawsuit brought against Cisco by members of the Falun Gong religious group. The Falun Gong are a religious minority in China who have been persecuted by Chinese authorities and are often subjected to detention and torture. Survivors and family members of victims have brought the suit against Cisco under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows non-citizens to bring cases before the US courts concerning human rights violations.

The case argues that Cisco's Golden Shield system played a key role in aiding the Chinese government in its program of persecution against the Falun Gong, and further argues that Cisco had knowledge that the software would be used for exactly that purpose. An earlier post by the EFF offers more detail on the software provided by Cisco to the Chinese government, which contains the following features:

  • 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;
  • 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);
  • Applications for storing and sharing videos of “efficient forced conversions” for purposes of training security officers on successful methods;
  • Applications for categorizing individual Falun Gong practitioners by their likely susceptibility to different methods of “forced conversion”;
  • Highly advanced video and image analyzers that Cisco marketed as the “only product capable of recognizing over 90% of Falun Gong pictorial information;” and
  • A nationwide video surveillance system which enabled the Chinese government to identify and detain Falun Gong practitioners.

According the case, Cisco provided software not just to identify and spy on Falun Gong members, but also to directly assist in the actual torture of Falun Gong practitioners. The case also claims that Cisco knew their software would be used to repress the Falun Gong, because that was exactly how it was marketed to the Chinese government. In a leaked presentation, Cisco informs the Chinese government that their software could be used to "Combat Falun Gong Evil Religion and Other Hostilities."

The federal judge who initially heard the case dismissed it. The judge believed that the plaintiffs had not proven that Cisco knew its software to identify and track Falun Gong practitioners would ultimately lead to their torture. The EFF believes that the judge was mistaken and is asking the appeals court to give the case the another chance.

EFF attorney Sophia Cope warns, "Cisco’s conduct is part of a growing trend of U.S. and European technology companies helping repressive governments become highly efficient at committing human rights violations. We are asking the Ninth Circuit to recognize that victims of such abuses can seek to hold accomplices like Cisco accountable for their role in brutal persecutions."

The full brief filed by the EFF, along with the groups ARTICLE 19 and Privacy International, can be found here.

Should Cisco be considered an accomplice to Chinese human rights abuses? Leave your comments below.

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I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.