Western Tech Companies Accused of Helping Authoritarian Countries Violate Human Rights

Photo by JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

While the media love to cheer about how social media supported the Arab Spring, less attention is paid to role Western companies have played in allowing authoritarian regimes to spy on their citizens. This week, two such stories have surfaced. Bloomberg News reports that the Bahraini government purchased a system that “generated text-message transcripts used in the interrogation of a human rights activist [who was] tortured. … The surveillance technology in Bahrain was sold by Siemens AG (SIE), and later maintained by Nokia Siemens Networks, followed by NSN’s divested unit, Munich-based Trovicor GmbH. …”

Reportedly, Syria, Yemen, and Egypt bought the same system. Now, the EU is considering an investigation into European firms that sell authoritarian governments such technologies—meant to help law enforcement agents track terrorists and other law breakers—that  can be used to violate human rights. Nokia Siemens Networks says that it spun off Trovicor because it was concerned about the potential for Trovicor’s products to be used in such a malevolent way.

Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation accuses Cisco Systems of “assisting the Chinese government in abusing human rights.” In one of two lawsuits currently in the U.S. legal system, It cites two lawsuits currently in U.S. courts, plaintiffs allege Cisco knowingly sold the Chinese government a system that

allows Chinese officials to “access private internet communications, identify anonymous web log authors, prevent the broadcast and dissemination of peaceful speech, and otherwise aid and abet in the violation of Plaintiffs’ fundamental human rights.”(para. 2). The government is able to block access to certain content on the Internet—either temporarily or forever—using several techniques, including blocking domain names or entire IP addresses. Access to information that is critical of the [Chinese Communist Party] or provides unflattering evidence about CCP—such as information about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests—is frequently inaccessible from within China. Search results for terms like “Egypt” have been blocked for fear they might inspire an uprising, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter are inaccessible.

Though Cisco has acknowledged that it sold the system to China, the company “denies allegations that they customized that equipment for the unique needs of the Chinese government.”

Read more on Bloomberg News and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.