Associated Press has reported recently that all the major manufacturers of electric vehicles currently accessing the Chinese market are complying with regulations in China that require them to transmit data collected by the tracking systems in these vehicles to government-backed monitoring centers. The manufacturers more or less uniformly say they are doing so having obtained the consent of their buyers.
But the report indicates only one of nine electric vehicle owners in China was aware of this— an individual claiming he knew only because he is an electric vehicle engineer. A quotation attributed to a Tesla Model S owner adds a wry twist to this issue of Chinese consumers’ non-awareness: “It’s useless to be concerned about it … if you’re concerned about it, then there’s no way to live in this country.”
Chinese officials said such analytics assist with improving public safety, facilitating industrial development and infrastructure planning, and preventing fraud in subsidy programs. The deputy director of the Shanghai Electric Vehicle Public Data Collecting, Monitoring and Research Center—one such monitoring center— reportedly echoed this saying, “We can provide a lot of data … to the government to help them improve policy and planning” and denied facilitating state surveillance.
Furthermore, this government official apparently said, “a privacy firewall built into the system means that while the monitoring center has each car’s unique vehicle identification number, to link that number with the personal details of the car owner, it must go through the automaker — a step it has taken in the past. Chinese law enforcement can also independently link the vehicle identification number with the car owner’s personal information.” Also he added “To speak bluntly, the government doesn’t need to surveil through a platform like ours. …the security forces must have their own ways to monitor suspects, as other governments do.” So we can relax. Or not?
The press report is careful to distinguish between what is happening in this regard in other countries around the world, noting that while “many vehicles in the U.S., Europe and Japan transmit position information back to automakers, who feed it to car-tracking apps … the data stops there.” So the report says.
This AP story is full of issues. One is the focus on electric vehicles. GPS tracking is not unique to electric vehicles and indeed, the report includes the description of a program in Xinjiang, a ‘restive’ region in western China in which residents were ordered to install GPS devices so their vehicles could be tracked.
The electric vehicle focus may have as much to do with the revelation of proprietary information that could assist China with achieving its stated goal of having new energy vehicles account for 20 percent of total sales in the Chinese car market by 2025. A second issue is the incentives for car manufacturers’ compliance, and whether or not they have or should have in any way pushed back. A third is where we are going from here in other countries as well.
Smart vehicles connected to other smart vehicles and smart roads presents many opportunities for government surveillance, and the flip side, many challenges for privacy protection.