China has launched an anti-espionage investigation against Coca-Cola for allegedly conducting illegal mapping in many sensitive areas on the mainland as the spying row between Beijing and Washington escalates.
The case is being handled jointly by the National Administration of Surveying, Mapping and Geoinformation and the Ministry of State Security. The involvement of the top intelligence authority underscores the seriousness of the case.
"We understand that espionage is a serious charge against a world famous company," said an official from the administration. "We are still in the process of gathering information.
"What we can say for now is that many subsidiaries of Coca-Cola are involved and this happens in many provinces. Due to the sheer scale of the case, the complexity of the technology involved and the implication to our national security, we are working with the Ministry of State Security on this."
The news came after Li Pengde - deputy director of the administration - openly accused the beverage giant on a national radio programme on Tuesday and said some of its employees were caught using hand-held GPS devices to collect sensitive geographic information in Yunnan province.
Coca-Cola issued a statement yesterday saying it was "co-operating fully" with the investigation. It said the GPS they used were "digital map and customer logistic systems commercially available in China". The GPS devices were used to improve fuel efficiency and customer service, it said.
Many Western companies use GPS devices to track the whereabouts of their employees as a way to improve efficiency and better planning.
But Han Qixiang , director of the administration's law enforcement department involved in the investigation, said Coca-Cola was apparently doing more than that. He said the mapping technology used by the US company was so sophisticated that it was beyond the administration's capacity to analyse its system.
Han said that after they reported the case to Beijing, they were told Yunnan was not the only province involved and the case was transferred to the Ministry of State Security.
"This involves national security. I'm not allowed to talk about any detail. We are waiting for the central government to make a final decision."
Professor Guo Jiming , an expert in GPS mapping at Wuhan University, said the government must be very careful on reaching its conclusion.
Only the use of "devices with ultra high sensitivity" or "mapping technology with military-level algorithm" should warrant such a level of concern being raised, he said.
Guo said Beijing was sensitive about the use of GPS devices by foreigners because such geographical data could be used by guided missiles to strike key military facilities.
Satellite images nowadays have high resolution, but they cannot pinpoint the exact location of an object due to the lack of reference.