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China technology

In China, your car could be talking to the government

  • Chinese officials said the data gathered is used for analytics to improve public safety, facilitate industrial development and infrastructure planning, and to prevent fraud in subsidy programmes
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 2:58pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 9:59pm

Global carmakers are feeding real-time location information and dozens of other data points from electric vehicles to Chinese government monitoring centres, potentially adding to China’s rich kit of surveillance tools as President Xi Jinping steps up the use of technology to track Chinese citizens. Generally, it happens without car owners’ knowledge, Associated Press found.

More than 200 carmakers selling electric vehicles in China – including Tesla, Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Mitsubishi and US-listed start-up NIO – send at least 61 data points to government-backed monitoring platforms, under rules published in 2016.

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

Critics, however, said the information collected exceeds those goals and could be used to undermine foreign carmakers’ competitive position, or for surveillance.

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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 that can quickly neutralise perceived threats to the stability of the ruling Communist Party.

There is also concern about the precedent these rules set for sharing data from next-generation connected cars, which may soon send 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,” said Michael Chertoff, who was secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under President George W Bush and wrote a book called Exploding Data. “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?’”

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At the Shanghai Electric Vehicle Public Data Collecting, Monitoring and Research Centre, a wall-sized screen glows with dots. Each represents one of more than 222,000 vehicles connected to the system, coursing along Shanghai’s roads to create a massive real-time map that could reveal where people live, shop, work and worship.

Data also flows to a national monitoring centre run by the Beijing Institute of Technology, which pulls information from more than 1.1 million new energy vehicles. Those numbers are about to get much bigger, as Beijing pushes electric vehicle development as part of its “Made in China 2025” industrial development plan.

Ding Xiaohua, the deputy director of the Shanghai centre, said monitoring is not designed to facilitate state surveillance, though data can be shared with police, prosecutors or courts, if a formal request is made. The centre is registered as a non-profit organisation, but is tightly aligned with and funded by the government.

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There is a privacy firewall built into the system. The data centre has each car’s unique vehicle identification number, but to link that with the owner’s personal details, it must go through the carmaker – a step it has taken in the past. Chinese law enforcement can also link the vehicle identification number with the owner’s personal information.

“To speak bluntly, the government doesn’t need to surveil through a platform like ours,” Ding said.

Many vehicles in the US, Europe and Japan send position information back to carmakers, who feed it to car-tracking apps, maps that pinpoint nearby amenities and emergency services providers. But the data stops there. Government or law enforcement agencies would generally only be able to access vehicle data in the context of a specific criminal investigation and in the US, would typically need a court order, lawyers said.

Carmakers initially resisted sharing information with the Shanghai monitoring centre; then the government made sending data a prerequisite for getting incentives.

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The carmakers gave dozens of reasons why they cannot give data to these centres, according to a government consultant who helped evaluate the policy and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues. The consultant said the carmakers agreed when the government offered them incentives for sharing data.

There was concern the shared data might reveal proprietary information about, for example, how hybrids switch between gas and battery power, and eventually set carmakers up for commercial competition with a Chinese government entity.

Ding said confidentiality agreements protect proprietary company information. Still, he is open about his desire to make money from the data. “We have done some explorations,” he said. “But there is still a distance from truly monetising it.”

China’s ability to grab data as it flows from cars gives it an edge. China tends to view technology development as a key competitive resource. Though global carmakers have received billions in incentives and subsidies from US, European and Japanese governments, they are contributing data to China that ultimately serves Beijing’s strategic interests.

Carmakers stressed they share data to comply with Chinese law and obtain consent from car owners. Nearly all have announced plans to aggressively expand electric vehicle offerings in China, the world’s biggest car market.

Volkswagen Group China chief executive Jochem Heizmann said he could not guarantee the data would not be used for government surveillance, but stressed that Volkswagen keeps personal data, like the driver’s identity, secure within its own systems.

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“It includes the location of the car, yes, but not who is sitting in it,” Heizmann said, adding that cars will not reveal more information than smartphones already do. “There is not a principle difference between sitting in a car and being in a shopping centre and having a smartphone with you.”

Still, not all electric vehicle owners feel the same.

Standing beside his white Model X, Tesla car owner Shan Junhua said he might not have bought the vehicle if he had known its journeys were being recorded.

“Tesla could have it, but why do they send it to the government?” Shan said. “Because this is about privacy.”