Do U.S. Companies Support Big Brother in China?

One Company Provides Chinese Cops Cameras, Others Turn Over Dissidents


Aug. 16, 2007—

Amid the gleaming skyscrapers and towering cranes of China's second largest port city, the citizens of Shenzhen will soon look up to see 20,000 security cameras looking down on them.

Images of the city's 12.4 million citizens will be fed into computers powered by technology provided by a U.S.-financed company that will allow police to recognize faces and track criminals.

But critics warn that the cameras and software, combined with a planned electronic identity card, will allow police to track the movements of political and religious dissidents. Furthermore, some contend that companies providing such technology could be in violation of an American law that bans U.S. companies from selling security equipment to China.

The ID cards will be implanted with an advanced microchip that will store information about the holder's name, address, religious and ethnic background, employment history, criminal record and number of children, to help enforce the country's one-child per family policy.

Chinese security experts say the cameras and ID cards are part of a planned countrywide high-tech security network called Golden Shield, which, like similar systems in the West, could be used to prevent or investigate acts of terrorism.

Human rights advocates, however, worry that an integrated system, which combines the country's numerous databases and systems for keeping dibs on citizens, would allow the government the unfettered ability to track people.

The company providing the cameras and software, China Public Security Technology, is headquartered in Shenzhen, has offices in California, and was incorporated in Florida. It is being financed by several American investment funds and investment banks.

The company insists that it is providing a service to help detect crime and protect citizens, comparable to those systems employed in places like the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

"Our vision is to provide technologies to government entities to better serve China's citizens and better equip the police department to combat crime and provide security to the citizens it serves," Michael Lin, the company's vice president told via e-mail.

"Like other developed countries, cities in China need to adapt latest technology to help them achieve the goal of serving and protecting their citizens," Lin wrote. "… A case in point is the controversial policy and deployment of fingerprint and picture collection of all visitors that come to [the] United States after the 9/11 event."

But human rights advocates insist that China is not like other developed countries. Without an independent judiciary, they say, there are no checks on the state's authority.

"The danger is, there are no counterweights to the authority of the state. They don't have independent courts that can strike a balance between maintaining public order and protecting individuals' privacy," said Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"This technology can effectively help carry out political oppression by identifying political or religious dissidents. The state can monitor and prevent legitimate forms of dissent, like public assembly, just by putting up cameras."

From Tiananmen to Yahoo!

Though Lin insists his company wholly operates in China, other American technology companies have been criticized for aiding the Chinese police.

In the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Congress passed a law prohibiting American companies from exporting "any crime control or detection instruments or equipment to [China]."

Included on this list are things like shotguns, police shields and fingerprint kits, according to the Department of Commerce. But the list also includes, with exceptions, computers and software.

Microsoft, Google and Cisco Systems have all come under congressional scrutiny.

"While the Internet is still not perfect, and may, at times, be misused, there has been no greater force in connecting people and spreading the power of ideas," Cisco told via e-mail.

"Moreover, Cisco complies with all U.S. government regulations which prohibit sale of our products to certain destinations; or to users who misuse our products or resell them to prohibited users. … The debate on China and its use of technology is a discussion that needs to continue to take place; however, it is a discussion that should be driven at a governmental level."

In 2005, Yahoo! faced international criticism for turning over to the Chinese police the IP address of Shi Tao, a dissident and journalist. Shi was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

A year later, during congressional hearings on American technology companies exporting equipment used by the Chinese police, Yahoo! insisted it had to respect the rules of the countries in which it operated.

Earlier this month, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that committee would further investigate Yahoo!, including determining whether representatives lied to the committee while under oath.

As for the news of cameras and IDs in Shenzhen, Lantos told he was worried that companies with American ties would be involved.

"I am very concerned about any form of repression in China, especially as the Olympics approach. U.S. companies have a responsibility to make sure their goods are not used to violate the human rights of Chinese citizens," he said.