According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Cisco is helping the Chinese build “a citywide network of as many as 500,000 cameras that officials say will prevent crime but that human-rights advocates warn could target political dissent.” This highlights very different corporate attitudes when contrasted with Google, who pulled out of China rather than censor their search data as required by Chinese law, and raises interesting issues about how business should be conducted. Should companies worry about how their technologies will be used or sell to all comers? Can companies afford, as Google has done, to leave potentially billions of dollars of revenue on the table because of ethical issues? Cisco felt the need to defend its behavior in its blog, much in the vein of weapons manufacturers (we sell weapons, but we don’t tell you how to use them). So there is doubt even among those companies that actively do business in China and other such places.
There are some differences between the United Kingdom, which already has a widespread surveillance system in place, and China. But the ethical issues might well be cast in the same light. Does a democracy deserve different treatment, even when the outcome of using its technology is the same? The United Kingdom’s relatively strong data protection laws may act as a balance to the tendency of law enforcement to intrude excessively, but once the toothpaste is out of the tube, retroactive protections can seem lacking. And I’m sure technology companies were and are lining up to supply this lucrative market.
There is not One True Answer for this issue, but we can rest assured it will become more complex and more nuanced as the available technology becomes more powerful.