February 1, 2010 | By Danny O'Brien

Seven "Corporations of Interest" in Selling Surveillance Tools to China

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's announcement of a new U.S. policy on global Internet Freedom included a bold new statement about the responsibilities of American technology companies:

...We are urging U.S. media companies to take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments' demands for censorship and surveillance. The private sector has a shared responsibility to help safeguard free expression. And when their business dealings threaten to undermine this freedom, they need to consider what’s right, not simply what’s a quick profit.

We couldn't agree more.

While Clinton focuses on media companies — meaning Internet media companies like Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft — there are plenty of other companies deserving scrutiny. Specfically, many U.S. (and multinational) technology companies may be knowingly selling Chinese authorities the surveillance equipment used to commit or facilitate human rights abuses. We think it's high time to pay attention to them as well.


The "Corporations of Interest"

Drawing from published news articles, EFF has compiled a list of seven corporations that are reportedly selling surveillance technology to the Chinese government and related entities. We're designating them "corporations of interest".

Of course, news articles alone are not absolute evidence that these companies are indeed fostering repression in China. But it's clear that China uses technology to employ rampant censorship, invasive data collection and intimidation. Learning exactly what is going on, especially in the Chinese environment of state secrecy and propaganda, is difficult. But news reports, especially those that include admissions of some level of involvement from company officials, are a sufficient basis to begin asking further questions.

  1. Cisco: Cisco's deep involvement in the building of China's Golden Shield Project has been admitted by the company. Cisco's involvement has even already been raised before Congress, including the fact that Cisco engineers gave a presentation acknowledging the repressive uses for their technology that quoted their Chinese government buyers as saying that Cisco's products could be used to "combat 'Falun Gong' evil religion and other hostiles." The UK's Guardian reports that Cisco provides over 60% of all routers, switches, and network gear to China and estimates that Cisco makes $500 million annually from China.

  2. Nortel: Rolling Stone [mirror] and The Guardian report that Nortel has sold hardware to aid the Golden Shield Project for surveillance and censorship purposes, including working with Tsinghua University to develop speech recognition software to monitor telephone conversations.

  3. Oracle: Business Week reports that Oracle has sold software to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security for criminal and ideological investigations. Oracle admits that one-third of its business in China is with the government.

  4. Motorola: Business Week also reports that Motorola sold the Chinese authorities handheld devices for street cops to tap into "sophisticated data repositories" on Chinese citizens.

  5. EMC: Business Week also reports that EMC sold "sophisticated data repositories" to the Chinese public security authorities. The top EMC executive in Beijing is quoted as saying, "We can expect big revenue from public security agencies" in China.

  6. Sybase: Business Week also reports that Sybase sells database programs to the Shanghai police.

  7. L-1 Identity Solutions: Rolling Stone reports that this Connecticut-based biometrics company sold software to Chinese companies that aids government officials in identifying individuals for purposes of criminal investigations.

The question of which companies have assisted in Chinese surveillance is just a small piece of a very large puzzle and we're quite confident that there are more than just these seven. And obviously many countries other than China are engaged in Internet surveillance — from Iran's infamous repression of political dissent, to censorship efforts across the globe, to the USA's own domestic surveillance architecture. Corporate complicity in these efforts is equally deserving of scrutiny.

It's also worth keeping in mind that surveillance is only part of the equation. Other technologies created or sold by companies may also be misused by the Chinese authorities. For instance, Internet censorship systems curtail civil liberties almost as severely as Internet surveillance systems. Research by the OpenNet Initiative has shown that censorship systems in many repressive countries have been outsourced to U.S. corporations.


The Solution

What comes next? Again, there's simply not enough publicly available information to be absolutely certain about the extent of any one company's active involvement or complicity.

So, a good first step would be for the companies in question to clear the air and come clean with the public about their behavior. There are six steps we'd like to see them take:

  1. Clarify their actual relationships with the Chinese authorities engaged in surveillance and censorship of the Chinese people.

  2. Publicly disclose what sorts of products and services they are selling to the Chinese government.

  3. Publicly disclose whether they have been doing "customization" or otherwise facilitating targeting of human rights activists or other vulnerable groups in China.

  4. Publicly disclose whether they have learned that their products and services are being used for repression.

  5. Publicly disclose how much money they make selling products and services to the Chinese government.

  6. Publicly disclose the steps they can take to prevent their products and services being used to violate human rights.

EFF (and presumably the State Department) will be watching closely to see whether these and other corporations selling surveillance technologies to the Chinese authorities take these steps.

And if they don't? Then it may be time for Secretary Clinton, or her allies in Congress and the Administration, to pressure them to do so.


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