War, genocide and mass surveillance: the future of our universities

10 June 2024
Vivian Ballenger

Earlier this year, the Cisco Digital Innovation Hub opened at Melbourne’s La Trobe University. Part of a partnership between La Trobe, Cisco and Optus, the Digital Innovation Hub promotes itself as a research centre for La Trobe’s many corporate and governmental partners, including Victoria Police Forensics and Rio Tinto. Cisco itself is a technology company specialising in surveillance, with strong ties to Israel.

The hub is just a small part of a much larger partnership between La Trobe and Cisco. The Cisco public report “Smart Campus Living Lab—Transforming the University” goes into detail about how the company plans to turn La Trobe’s Bundoora campus into a “living lab”, using students as both researchers and guinea pigs. The $5 billion plan will require a major transformation of the campus. While much of the report is focused on the supposed benefits of mass digitisation and the centralisation of information, it will also involve the use of Cisco Meraki MV “smart” cameras. These cameras utilise AI for in-camera processing, allowing the camera itself to recognise and track licence plates, analyse retail sales and increase workplace efficiency.

To conduct research on a “living lab” university campus, Cisco, La Trobe and whatever other research partners they may involve would be under no obligation to restrict the use of these cameras and other technologies, and they could surveil the entire university constantly in order to maximise the available information.

La Trobe is not the first university to undergo this transformation. In 2017, student newspaper Honi Soit reported that Curtin University had announced a similar partnership with Hitachi—a weapons company that produces artillery support vehicles and self-propelled mortars for the Japanese military. A Hitachi press release gushes about being able to track “the lifecycle of the student, the day to day reality of a staff member, the activity pattern of a lecture theatre”. Then chief operating officer at Curtin, Ian Callahan, called this an “open invitation” to researchers and scientists.

In 2017, the University of Melbourne announced that it was considering limiting students’ access to wi-fi in specific areas of campus to manipulate their behaviour and movements without them knowing. Website iTnews quotes then data centre and facility services manager Will Belcher as saying at the Cloud & DC Edge Summit, “[We] want to try and use the data from the wireless access points and controllers—we track [wi-fi usage] against each student’s login name—to determine what faculty they’re in. [We want to] look at prioritising the students that do belong to the faculty so those students get better wireless coverage, so as to gently dissuade the [other] students and steer them back to their own libraries.” The potential for interfering with political activity, and victimising those taking part in it, is obvious.

Cisco’s history of human rights violations and cooperation with Israel’s genocidal regime is yet more reason to oppose this partnership. An American Friends Service Committee investigation made public a long-term partnership established in 2018 between Cisco and Israel to set up co-working spaces in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. In 2016, Cisco signed a memorandum of understanding with the Israeli government to turn eastern Negev (an-Naqab) into Israel’s first “smart region” and invest in digital media.

A Cisco press release quotes executive chairman John Chambers announcing that “every country, city, business, house, car will become digital over the next decade ... It’s a great honor to be partnering with the country, citizens, and government leaders of Israel in this transition”. This same press release talks proudly about Cisco’s more than $2 billion worth of investment in Israel.

The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre reports that, in 2017, Cisco offered to implement smart technology in Jerusalem, free of charge. This included surveillance technology and software, with a central command centre capable of analysing footage from 10,000 cameras. That same year Cisco won a bid to become the main supplier of servers to the Israeli military. The then CEO of Cisco Israel, Oren Sagi, called it “an integral part of our commitment to the state of Israel”.

Israeli apartheid isn’t the only human rights violation Cisco is involved with. In 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released its report “Uyghurs for sale”, which noted that 82 companies—including Cisco and other, more well-known companies like Apple, Samsung and BMW—had profited from the forced relocation, detention and slave labour of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China. That same year, Cisco helped the Jammu and Kashmir administration to censor Kashmiri citizens, developing firewalls on the already limited fixed-line internet access. ThePrint reports that this was largely targeted at social media sites, and that Kashmiri internet users could access just 1,600 of the world’s more than 1 billion websites.

Here in Australia, Cisco’s meddling in our universities doesn’t end at this “living lab” mass surveillance. This year, the Defence Trailblazer program began in partnership with the University of Adelaide and the University of New South Wales. Its stated objectives, according to its website, include “[accelerating] the commercialisation of research at speed and scale for the Australian Defence Force” and developing “education training pathways to address skills gaps and defence sector’s workforce needs”.

This program will put student and academic researchers in partnership with more than 40 corporations, including Cisco, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Thales. A Defence SA article quotes Defence Trailblazer executive director Dr Sanjay Mazumdar as saying about Cisco’s partnership, “the project aims to accelerate the translation and commercialisation of cyber technologies to safeguard our nation”. This program—and Cisco as a key player within it—will play a significant role in the militarisation of our universities, and Australia as a whole. Staff and students opposed to this militarisation, and the death and destruction it will and already is causing, have a responsibility to resist.

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