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Report: Cisco Joins China In Developing Massive Surveillance Network

Chinese laborers adjust a surveillance camera at Tiananmen Square in 2007 in Beijing, China.
Guang Niu
Getty Images
Chinese laborers adjust a surveillance camera at Tiananmen Square in 2007 in Beijing, China.

In a piece today, the Wall Street Journal reports that Cisco Systems Inc. will help China build a massive surveillance network in the city of Chongqing. The technological part of it is impressive, as it will "cover cover a half-million intersections, neighborhoods and parks over nearly 400 square miles, an area more than 25% larger than New York City."

But the bigger question that the piece is concerned with is whether that equipment will be used by the Chinese government to crackdown on dissent and what responsibility does a Western company bear when it does business with a government like China?

The Journal did not talk to Cisco, but it did get a hold of Hewlett-Packard, which expects to make a bid on the project dubbed Peaceful Chongqing:

The people familiar with the matter said H-P may be looking to supply servers or storage equipment for Peaceful Chongqing.

Asked about concerns about political use of the system, Todd Bradley, an executive vice president who oversees H-P's China strategy, said in an interview last week in China, "We take them at their word as to the usage." He added, "It's not my job to really understand what they're going to use it for. Our job is to respond to the bid that they've made."

Jena McGregor, at the Washington Post, thinks about the issue and says that, indeed, questioning the motive of every potential client does not a sale make. Plus, there's also no way for a company to really know how their products will ultimately be used. Then she throws a caveat:

Still, at potentially 500,000 cameras, the system would be exponentially larger than the 8,000 or 10,000 the American Civil Liberties Union estimates exist in cities like New York or Chicago. And even if crime in Chongqing is a problem that the surveillance system could help to address, China has a history of using video footage to target political protestors, the story says human-rights advocates claim. At the very least, it seems that any company involved with such a project would want to make its best faith effort to understand what their products would be used for, even if they can't entirely control the end use.

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Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.