The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating story today about a massive surveillance network aimed at crime prevention that is being built in China. Called “Peaceful Chongqing,” the project, which human rights activists worry could be used to target political protestors, will cover nearly 400 square miles and include as many as 500,000 cameras, making it “among the largest and most sophisticated video-surveillance projects of its kind in China, and perhaps the world.”
What makes it so interesting isn’t the size or scope of the project. Rather, it’s the ethical leadership questions that arise from its building. Several U.S.-based companies, including Cisco, HP and Alabama-based software maker Intergraph, have either signed on to help create the network or are poised to do so, the Journal reports. The article raises interesting questions about whether the executives of those companies bear any responsibility for potential misuse.
Cisco executives declined to discuss their involvement in the project with the WSJ. But HP executive Todd Bradley reportedly told the Journal that “we take them at their word as to the usage,” adding “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."
But is that really a corporate leader’s whole job? Bradley is right that companies, to a certain extent, have to take a client at their word—second-guessing every potential customer’s intentions does not many sales make. After all, a business leader cannot possibly know how each and every customer will use its products, nor can he know that the client won’t then repurpose or even resell the products for another use.
But on a contract as large as the one HP, for example, could get from working with Chongqing, it does seem the company’s leadership has some responsibility—if not to larger civil liberties issues, at least to their own corporate brand—over how their equipment might eventually be used. To be sure, it’s not clear that the surveillance network, which might end up using HP’s servers or Cisco’s routers, is being built to do anything more than prevent crime, which apparently is a big problem in the massive city. And while human-rights workers say the network could be used to target political dissidents, Chongqing is hardly the only large city that has a video camera system in place. London is famously the home of a large closed-circuit camera network around its financial center, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg has studied that city’s system to expand New York’s own.
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.
When asked, Wall Street Journal readers were divided over whether companies are responsible when governments use their products for political suppression. At the time of this writing, nearly 50 percent said yes. But a full 43 percent said no—one commenter wrote that “short of a global embargo, there is no way you are going to control this.” Like all ethical leadership questions, there’s not a simple answer. What do you think: Do corporate leaders have a responsibility for knowing how their products will be used when the customer in question is a large government entity?
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