Tue, Dec 04, 2018 - Page 9 News List

In China, your car could be talking to the government

China has ordered electric vehicle makers to relinquish real-time driving data to ensure safety and improve infrastructure, but critics worry the tracking could be put to more nefarious uses

By Chen Si and Yuri Kageyama  /  AP, SHANGHAI

Illustration: Yusha

When Shan Junhua bought his white Tesla Model X, he knew it was a fast, beautiful car. What he did not know was that Tesla constantly sends information about the precise location of his car to the Chinese government.

Tesla is not alone. China has called on all electric vehicle manufacturers in China to make the same kind of reports — potentially adding to the rich kit of surveillance tools available to the Chinese government as Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) steps up the use of technology to track Chinese citizens.

“I didn’t know this,” Shan said. “Tesla could have it, but why do they transmit it to the government? Because this is about privacy.”

More than 200 manufacturers, including Tesla, Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Mitsubishi and US-listed electric vehicle start-up NIO, transmit position information and dozens of other data points to government-backed monitoring centers, reporters found. Generally, it happens without vehicle owners’ knowledge.

The automakers say they are merely complying with local laws, which apply only to alternative energy vehicles, while Chinese officials say the data is used for analytics to improve public safety, facilitate industrial development and infrastructure planning, and to prevent fraud in subsidy programs.

However, other countries that are major markets for electronic vehicles — the US, Japan, across Europe — do not collect this kind of real-time data, and critics say the information collected in China is beyond what is needed to meet the country’s stated goals.

The data could be used not only to undermine foreign automakers’ competitive position, but also for surveillance — particularly in China, where there are few protections on personal privacy.

Under Xi’s leadership, China has unleashed a war on dissent, marshalling big data and artificial intelligence to create a more perfect kind of policing, capable of predicting and eliminating perceived threats to the stability of the Chinese Communist Party.

There is also concern about the precedent these rules set for sharing data from next-generation connected cars, which might soon transmit even more personal information.

“You’re learning a lot about people’s day-to-day activities and that becomes part of what I call ubiquitous surveillance, where pretty much everything that you do is being recorded and saved, and potentially can be used in order to affect your life and your freedom,” said Michael Chertoff, who served as secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security under former US president George W. Bush and wrote a book titled Exploding Data.

Global automakers should be asking themselves tough questions, Chertoff said.

“If what you’re doing is giving a government of a more authoritarian country the tools to have massive surveillance, I think then companies have to ask themselves, ‘Is this really something we want to do in terms of our corporate values, even if it means otherwise forgoing that market?’” he added.

The Shanghai Electric Vehicle Public Data Collecting, Monitoring and Research Center sits in a gray tower in the suburban district of Jiading. One floor up from the cafeteria, a wall-sized screen glows with dots, each representing a single vehicle coursing along Shanghai’s roads to create a massive real-time map that could reveal where people live, shop, work and worship.

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