If oppressive regimes want to stay oppressive, they need to fear—and wield—technology like a sword covered in napalm. And in most cases, they can't do that without using outside help. Here are the five worst corporate collaborators in technology.
You really cannot get much worse than helping the Nazis perpetrate the Holocaust. You just can't. And yet, the company that used to make our laptops and now entertains us on Jeopardy helped create the most rationalized, methodically-perfected means of genocide in human history. As author Edwin Black explains in his exhaustive "IBM and the Holocaust," the computer firm's services were perfectly suited for the machinations of the Third Reich. The Nazis wanted to perfect human murdering. To turn it into a science. Genocide was to be flawless, smooth, and predictable. Sort of like a computer:
"The only way to eliminate any mistakes," [Nazi scientist Dr. Karl] Keller insisted, "is the registration of the entire population. How is this to be done?" Keller demanded "the establishment of mandatory personal genetic-biographical forms...Nothing would hinder us," he assured, "from using these forms to enter any important information which can be used by race scientists."
For this, Germany needed computers. IBM made great computers—and they were sold to Hitler, straight from the New York office. IBM's custom made punchcard computers were specially designed for the Third Reich, and Nazi computer scientists were personally trained by IBM engineers. The statistical might of these machines were able to facilitate the chilling ease with which the Holocaust was executed.
Authoritarian regimes don't usually need much evidence before torturing citizens within an inch of their lives. But in Bahrain, government torture squads use intercepted phone, text, and internet transcripts as sufficient reason to devilishly torment its people into submission (or worse). And how do they do it? With equipment sold to them by Nokia Siemens. As in, the same companies that sell phones and electrical equipment. The systems provided by Nokia Siemens are hardwired into Bahrain's communications infrastructure—inescapable eyes and ears. This listening and whispering menace is also the reason Bahrain hasn't joined in with other Middle Eastern nations in overthrowing—or at least rallying against—their harsh governments. It's hard to organize change when you've got an omniscient torture goon standing over your shoulder.
BBMing is a cheap, easy way of communicating privately around the entire planet. It's also only private so much as RIM decides your BlackBerry should be. In most of the world, you're able to send a BBM and know that it's encrypted, routed only through RIM's server farm in Canada. In Saudi Arabia, you can send a BBM with the knowledge that the government can read the entire thing, know exactly who it came from, and know exactly where it's going. Why? RIM said it was okay. Rather than let Saudi Arabia cut off BlackBerry service entirely, as threatened last summer, the company caved to government demands in order to keep its business in the kingdom.
Part of the American trouble fighting in Vietnam was the terrain. A big part. Jungles were harder to fight through than, say, the open plains of the Midwest. So the Pentagon devised Operation Ranch Hand—an deforestation campaign designed to leave Viet Cong forces exposed after all the surrounding vegetation was dead. Sounds simple, right? Except there were people living around all that vegetation—millions of them. And Agent Orange, the chemical dropped on them, caused problems. How many? Let's see what the US Department of Veterans Affairs lists:
•Acute and Subacute Peripheral Neuropathy
A nervous system condition that causes numbness, tingling, and motor weakness. Under VA's rating regulations, it must be at least 10% disabling within 1 year of exposure to herbicides and resolve within 2 years after the date it began.
A rare disease caused when an abnormal protein, amyloid, enters tissues or organs.
•Chloracne (or Similar Acneform Disease)
A skin condition that occurs soon after exposure to chemicals and looks like common forms of acne seen in teenagers. Under VA's rating regulations, chloracne (or other acneform disease similar to chloracne) must be at least 10% disabling within 1 year of exposure to herbicides.
•Chronic B-cell Leukemias
A type of cancer which affects white blood cells.
•Diabetes Mellitus (Type 2)
A disease characterized by high blood sugar levels resulting from the body's inability to respond properly to the hormone insulin.
A malignant lymphoma (cancer) characterized by progressive enlargement of the lymph nodes, liver, and spleen, and by progressive anemia.
•Ischemic Heart Disease
A disease characterized by a reduced supply of blood to the heart, that leads to chest pain.
A cancer of plasma cells, a type of white blood cell in bone marrow.
A group of cancers that affect the lymph glands and other lymphatic tissue.
A progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects muscle movement.
•Porphyria Cutanea Tarda
A disorder characterized by liver dysfunction and by thinning and blistering of the skin in sun-exposed areas. Under VA's rating regulations, it must be at least 10% disabling within 1 year of exposure to herbicides.
Cancer of the prostate; one of the most common cancers among men.
Cancers of the lung, larynx, trachea, and bronchus.
•Soft Tissue Sarcoma (other than Osteosarcoma, Chondrosarcoma, Kaposi's sarcoma, or Mesothelioma)
A group of different types of cancers in body tissues such as muscle, fat, blood and lymph vessels, and connective tissues.
Some particularly nasty stuff. And it was all created by the folks at Dow and Monsanto, who sell soap, laundry detergent, seeds, and animal feed. And a chemical weapon that the Vietnam Red Cross estimates seriously harmed up to 3 million Vietnamese kids and adults.
China's stranglehold on digital speech is old hat. Citizens are jailed and abused for criticizing the government, because the government watches nearly everything they do online. You know this. What you might not know is that Yahoo!—the same company you might do business with to email, search, or store your photos—turned in two Chinese dissidents after the government asked them for help. Their crimes, reported the Washington Post?
In 2002, Wang, an engineer, was detained by Chinese officials for writing pro-democracy articles on a Yahoo Groups Web site. Shi, a journalist, was arrested in 2004 after he forwarded an e-mail directing him not to cover the Tiananmen Square anniversary to an overseas Web site.
Years later, after apologizing, Yahoo! settled with the prisoners' families.