China, the world's most populous country, continues to devise new methods of keeping tabs on its 1.4 billion citizens. And after the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week about a powerful new spy camera devised by a team of researchers at Duke University who had, incidentally, received funding from the US government, America's business newspaper of record is back Wednesday with another stunning report, this time about how China is establishing a new system to track cars using electronic tags. Indeed, WSJ describes the plan to "improve public security", which will also purportedly help ease extreme congestion in the largest Chinese cities.
The plan, which is set to be rolled out by July 1, will rely on chips that can be identified thanks to their unique radio frequency signature. Compliance will be voluntary at first, but it will become mandatory for all new vehicles by Jan. 2019.
Of course, the plan will dramatically expand China's ability to track its citizens' every move - something that's becoming increasingly important as Chinese authorities seek to implement their "social credit score."
China's surveillance network already includes powerful cameras that can detect an individual's facial features from 100 yards away, according to WSJ. Meanwhile, the program will have a serious impact on China's automotive industry, which is feeding the world's biggest market, with nearly 30 million vehicles expected to be sold this year.
"It’s all happening in the backdrop of this pretty authoritarian government," said Ben Green, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society who is researching use of data and technology by city governments. "It’s really hard to imagine that the primary use case is not law enforcement surveillance and other forms of social control."
As far as western media outlets are concerned, implementing the network will involve RFID chips being affixed to car windshields. As we reported earlier this year, citing a story published in an obscure trade journal, RFID chips are already being used by several governments - including China's neighbor the Philippines - to aid in tracking their citizens. The system will register details like a drivers' license plate number, as well as the color, or colors, of their car. Chinese officials insist that the system won't continuously track individual vehicles; instead, it will register when cars pass certain tagged landmarks.
The system will register information such as the license plate number and automobile color, one of the people said. The system will know when vehicles passed checkpoints. But unlike GPS tracking systems, it won’t reveal a car’s position at all times.
In the U.S. and elsewhere, RFID chips are widely installed on cars for automated toll road payments. They are also used in some fleet vehicles like commercial trucks at areas including ports to track the locations of the vehicles and the goods they are carrying.
But the Chinese plan "would certainly be largest single program managed by one government in the world," said Manuel Moreno, vice president at Neology Inc., a San Diego-based company and a major provider of RFID technology systems for automobiles in the U.S. and Mexico.
While China hasn't recently released any new information about the plan, China public security’s Traffic Management Research Institute unveiled the draft standards and sought public comments back in 2014. The plan is needed, authorities claimed, to combat traffic and congestion on the country's increasingly crowded roads - while also helping China safeguard the country against possible terrorist attacks after cars and trucks have been used by assailants across Europe and in North America.
Still, experts say that collecting personal data like a driver's exact location isn't necessary to curb traffic. Instead, "it's kind of like another tool in the toolbox for mass-surveillance," said Maya Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. "To be able to track vehicles would definitely add substantial location details to the chain of data points that they already have."