Cisco accused of helping China track Falun Gong followers
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A group of Falun Gong followers has filed a potentially groundbreaking lawsuit accusing Cisco Systems (CSCO) of helping Chinese authorities persecute members of their religious movement by building a computer system that tracked their Internet activity and fed information to internal security databases.
Cisco denied the allegations, adding in a statement Monday that it only sold standard networking equipment and did not provide any customized technology for the Chinese system.
The suit, filed last week in San Jose’s federal court, echoes complaints raised previously over the past decade by human rights advocates, who are concerned that Silicon Valley companies have allowed China to use their technology as tools for the brutal repression of dissidents and members of banned groups such as Falun Gong, which Chinese authorities consider subversive.
Plaintiffs include several Falun Gong members who say they were arrested and physically abused by Chinese authorities; the lawsuit also cites a man who was beaten to death in prison and a woman who “disappeared" while in custody.
Three years ago, when asked about similar allegations at a U.S. Senate hearing, Cisco executives disavowed any support for human rights abuses. But attorneys for the Falun Gong plaintiffs say they have new evidence, including marketing materials and statements from Cisco employees, indicating that Cisco knew its technology would be used in the government’s campaign against Falun Gong.
“We have actual testimony from insiders, and we’ve amassed three years of data that goes beyond what was presented to Congress," said Lee Crawford-Boyd, a Los Angeles lawyer who brought the class-action suit with attorneys from the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Law Foundation.
Although other U.S. companies have been sued over alleged human rights abuses abroad, most of those cases involved the oil industry or other sectors. Crawford-Boyd said she wasn’t aware of any similar claims involving technology companies.
The class-action suit invokes a federal law against torture and another statute that allows foreign citizens to sue in the United States for violations of international law. It names the company and CEO John Chambersas defendants, along with other top executives who were allegedly aware of how Chinese authorities planned to use Cisco’s technology.
San Jose-based Cisco has been a leading supplier of routers and other networking gear for China’s telecommunications networks and Internet services. But in its statement, Cisco said it does not operate networks in China, “nor does Cisco customize our products in any way that would facilitate censorship or repression.
“Cisco builds equipment to global standards which facilitate free exchange of information, and we sell the same equipment in China that we sell in other nations worldwide in strict compliance with U.S. government regulations," the company said.
The lawsuit, however, alleges that Cisco aggressively promoted its technology to Chinese authorities who wanted to build a system known as the “Golden Shield," which would be used to monitor Falun Gong followers who rely heavily on the Internet to communicate with one another and share their religious beliefs.
Cisco’s presentations at Chinese trade shows included “brochures acknowledging that a major purpose of the Golden Shield is to persecute Falun Gong practitioners," the suit claims.
The suit alleges Cisco helped design and customize the Chinese system so authorities could track domestic Internet users who attempted to access Falun Gong websites. According to the suit, Cisco also designed the system so authorities could integrate that information with data from other surveillance and security systems.