Cisco's Cameras in China: When Do Profits Become Unethical?

Last Updated Jul 18, 2011 12:01 PM EDT

Cisco is walking into an ethical quagmire with its eyes firmly shut. The issue in this case is the company's involvement in one of the world's largest surveillance projects, being built in the Chinese city of Chongqing.

Ostensibly, this project is designed to reduce crime - by installing up to 500,000 cameras over 400 square miles. It is possible that this project is entirely benign, designed to deter crime in the peaceful city. But it is also possible that it is a means of political and social control. After all, reducing crime is a broad remit and hinges, critically, on how you define 'crime'. If, in this instance, crime were to include dissent, then the Cisco deal would be legally questionable.

When is a Camera Not a Camera?
All of the legislation covering exports is tricky. After all, when is a canister a canister - and when is it a component for a weapon of mass destruction? When is a camera protecting a citizen from being robbed - and when is it suppressing political dissent? These are virtually unanswerable questions.

But there are some guidelines Cisco could use to define an ethical response.

  • Weigh the satisfactory uses of the equipment vs their unsatisfactory uses. Which wins out: the capacity for good - or the capacity for bad? If there are more good uses for these products, then the deal might be viable. Can anything inhibit inappropriate use? If so, does the customer accept those limitations? If this is a sore negotiating point, Cisco may have the answer it needs, if not the answer it wants.
  • Gauge how far the customer is answerable for the product's use. In deals of this kind, typically there are layers and layers of command. That means the sales team may not be talking to those ultimately running the system. Sometimes this is deliberate: if the customer doesn't know how the system will be used, they can't make any revelations that hinder the deal. This attenuated chains of command are an ethical black hole - sometimes deliberately so.
Cisco's Troubling Response

So far, Cisco's approach has been to deflect responsibility. It may not be the company's business to understand what the Chinese plan to use the equipment for, but without that understanding, it could be in breach of the law which, since Tiananmen Square, forbids US businesses from selling crime-control equipment to the Chinese.

Moreover, Cisco should be particularly alert to what I think of as Asimov's law. In Isaac Asimov's iRobot trilogy, there is a law which says that robots may not kill humans. They successfully circumvent this by breaking the steps of a killing into so many minute instructions that not one, alone, is lethal. This is how virtually all corporate malfeasance occurs: not when the CEO orders mass criminality but when everyone is taking small steps in the wrong direction. Hooking up a network isn't a crime - but not understanding how it will be used could be. It doesn't pay to be too disingenuous.

Image courtesy of Fotopedia C.C.2.0

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on