April 10, 2014 | By Cindy Cohn

EFF Asks Court To Allow Human Rights Case Against Cisco to Proceed

Case Argues Cisco Built Surveillance Tools Specifically Designed to Help Chinese Authorities Target Falun Gong

EFF filed a request to submit an amicus brief today in the Federal District Court of the Northern District of California, urging the Court to let a case entitled Doe v. Cisco Systems go forward against Cisco for its role in contributing to human rights abuses against the Falun Gong religious minority in China. China's record of human rights abuses against the Falun Gong is notorious, including detention, torture, forced conversions, and even deaths. These violations have been well-documented by the U.N., the U.S. State Department, and many others around the world, including documentation of China's use of sophisticated surveillance technologies to facilitate this repression.

The central claim in the case is that Cisco purposefully customized its general purpose router technology to allow the Chinese government to identify, track, and detain Falun Gong members. Specifically, the case alleges that Cisco customized technology for anti-Falun Gong purposes including:

  • 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.

The suit also alleges that Cisco not only knew that its customizations would be used to repress the Falun Gong, but actively marketed, sold, and supported the technologies toward that purpose. In fact, the case arises in part from the publication several years ago of a presentation in which Cisco confirms that the Golden Shield is helpful to the Chinese government to “Combat Falun Gong Evil Religion and Other Hostilities.” It also alleges that these customizations were actually used to identify and detain the plaintiffs.

People around the world are increasingly concerned about the sale by Western companies of surveillance and other technologies used for repression. Over the past few years, EFF has tracked a pattern around the world (here, here and here) and has suggested "Know Your Customer" standards for technology companies who are selling technologies that can be used in human rights abuses to potentially repressive governments. Many have suggested increased export controls to combat the problem, but the Doe v. Cisco and EFF's Kidane v. Ethiopia cases show that there are other ways to address the very real problem of companies selling the tools of repression as well as the repression that results.

In its brief, EFF suggests a careful liability analysis, expressly noting in this case, and in another case against Cisco from last year, Du Daobin v. Cisco,1 that a tech company could not (and should not) be held accountable when governments misuse general use products for nefarious purposes. Yet the allegations here are that Cisco has done far more than sell standard router technology and services to the Chinese authorities; they are that Cisco has specifically and intentionally customized its technologies and services in order to facilitate well-documented human rights violations against a religious minority. That should be sufficient to allow the case to proceed.

EFF legal intern Hilary Richardson greatly assisted in the writing of EFF's amicus brief. Thanks Hilary!

  • 1. The Du Daobin case was dismissed earlier this year and EFF noted the problems with that decision and urged the California court not to follow suit.

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