Cisco Systems built a security system for the Chinese government knowing it would be used to track and persecute members of the Falun Gong religious minority, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation technology rights group.
Falun Gong practitioners alleged the same thing in a lawsuit that a federal judge in Northern California dismissed in 2014. That case is being appealed, and on Monday the EFF, Privacy International and free-speech group Article 19 filed a brief that supports the appeal.
The case highlights the risks technology companies take by selling software and hardware to customers around the world. Some of those customers may use the technology in ways that raise objections in other countries, creating legal problems or just tarnishing a vendor's reputation.
Many U.S. and European companies sell technology to regimes that violate human rights, and if this case goes to trial and Cisco loses, they may think twice, said EFF Staff Attorney Sophia Cope.
"In a lot of instances, these companies are selling directly to the government, and they know exactly what is going to be happening," Cope said.
In this case, Cisco built an extensive law-enforcement system for the Chinese government beginning in 1999, called the "Golden Shield" or "Great Firewall." Also in 1999, China outlawed Falun Gong and began what the group calls a brutal campaign of repression including detention, beatings and torture.
Several practitioners of Falun Gong sued Cisco in 2011, saying the government used the Golden Shield against them in its campaign. They sued under the Alien Tort Statute, a law against activities in the U.S. that support human rights abuses in other countries. They are seeking compensation and punitive damages, plus an injunction to stop Cisco from doing the same again.
In the lower court, Judge Edward Davila found that the defendants couldn't support their charge that Cisco knew its technology would be used to persecute Falun Gong practitioners. The EFF and others want the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate the suit.
The EFF says there was plenty of evidence that Cisco knew or should have known, and that it customized the system for the campaign against Falun Gong.
"Cisco developed specific portions of the Golden Shield in the U.S. to assist in the identification and location of Falun Gong practitioners, and those portions substantially assisted the Chinese government in efficiently and expansively persecuting the Falun Gong," the group said in its brief. Internal Cisco documents even mentioned such tactics, it said.
Cisco said Tuesday that Davila was correct to dismiss the case.
“We have always maintained that there is no basis for the allegations against Cisco, and there is no merit to the case," Cisco said via email. "We do not customize our products in any way that would facilitate censorship or repression.”
Cisco has also faced a lawsuit that alleged its system was used against Chinese dissidents. That suit was also dismissed. A similar suit against IBM, filed in 2002, ended only last year with a win for IBM. Victims of South African apartheid sued IBM, saying it built a custom national identification system that the government used to segregate South Africans by race.