CHINA’S ELEC­TRIC VE­HI­CLE MON­I­TOR­ING RAISES SUR­VEIL­LANCE FEAR

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

Tesla is not alone. China has called upon 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 Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping steps up the use of tech­nol­ogy to track Chi­nese cit­i­zens.

“I didn’t know this,” said Shan. “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 U.S.-listed elec­tric ve­hi­cle start-up NIO, trans­mit po­si­tion in­for­ma­tion and dozens of other data points to gov­ern­ment­backed mon­i­tor­ing cen­ters. Gen­er­ally, it hap­pens with­out car own­ers’ knowl­edge.

The au­tomak­ers say they are merely com­ply­ing with lo­cal laws, which ap­ply only to al­ter­na­tive en­ergy ve­hi­cles. 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.

But other coun­tries that are ma­jor mar­kets for elec­tronic ve­hi­cles — the United States, 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. It could be used not only to un­der­mine for­eign car­mak­ers’ com­pet­i­tive po­si­tion, but also for sur­veil­lance — par­tic­u­larly in China, where there are few pro­tec­tions on per­sonal pri­vacy. Un­der the lead­er­ship of Xi Jin­ping, 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 rul­ing Com­mu­nist Party.

There is also con­cern about the prece­dent these rules set for shar­ing data from next-gen­er­a­tion con­nected cars, which may 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 U.S. De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush and re­cently wrote a book called “Ex­plod­ing Data.”

Chertoff said global au­tomak­ers should be ask­ing them­selves tough ques­tions. “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?’”

A BIG­GER BROTHER?

The Shang­hai Elec­tric Ve­hi­cle Pub­lic Data Col­lect­ing, Mon­i­tor­ing and Re­search Cen­ter sits in a grey tower in sub­ur­ban Jiad­ing dis­trict. 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.

Click a dot at ran­dom, and up pops a win­dow with a num­ber that iden­ti­fies each in­di­vid­ual ve­hi­cle, along with its make and model, mileage and bat­tery charge.

All told, the screen ex­hibits data from over 222,000 ve­hi­cles in Shang­hai, the vast ma­jor­ity of them pas­sen­ger cars.

“We can pro­vide a lot of data from con­sumers to the gov­ern­ment to help them im­prove pol­icy and plan­ning,” said Ding Xiao­hua, deputy di­rec­tor of the cen­ter, a non-profit that is tightly aligned with and funded by the gov­ern­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to na­tional spec­i­fi­ca­tions pub­lished in 2016, elec­tric ve­hi­cles in China trans­mit data from the car’s sen­sors back to the man­u­fac­turer. From there, au­tomak­ers send at least 61 data points, in­clud­ing lo­ca­tion and de­tails about

bat­tery and en­gine func­tion to lo­cal cen­ters like the one Ding over­sees in Shang­hai.

Data also flows to a na­tional mon­i­tor­ing cen­ter for new en­ergy ve­hi­cles run by the Bei­jing In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, which pulls in­for­ma­tion from more than 1.1 mil­lion ve­hi­cles across the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Big Data Al­liance of New En­ergy Ve­hi­cles. The na­tional mon­i­tor­ing cen­ter de­clined to re­spond to ques­tions.

Those num­bers are about to get much big­ger. Though elec­tric ve­hi­cle sales ac­counted for just 2.6 per­cent of the to­tal last year, pol­i­cy­mak­ers have said they’d like new en­ergy ve­hi­cles to ac­count for 20 per­cent of to­tal sales by 2025. Start­ing next year, all au­tomak­ers in China must meet pro­duc­tion min­i­mums for new en­ergy ve­hi­cles, part of Bei­jing’s ag­gres­sive ef­fort to re­duce de­pen­dence on for­eign en­ergy sources and place it­self at the fore­front of a grow­ing global in­dus­try.

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has shown its in­ter­est in track­ing ve­hi­cles.

“The gov­ern­ment wants to know what peo­ple are up to at all times and re­act in the quick­est way pos­si­ble,” said Maya Wang, a se­nior China re­searcher for Hu­man Rights Watch. “There is zero pro­tec­tion against state sur­veil­lance.”

“Track­ing ve­hi­cles is one of the main fo­cuses of their mass sur­veil­lance,” she added.

Last year, au­thor­i­ties in Xin­jiang, a restive re­gion in west­ern China that has be­come a lab­o­ra­tory for China’s sur­veil­lance state, or­dered res­i­dents to in­stall GPS de­vices so their ve­hi­cles could be tracked, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial me­dia. This

sum­mer the Min­istry of Pub­lic Se­cu­rity, a po­lice agency, be­gan to roll out a sys­tem to track ve­hi­cles us­ing wind­shield ra­dio fre­quency chips that can iden­tify cars as they pass road­side read­ing de­vices.

Ding in­sisted that the elec­tric ve­hi­cle mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram is not de­signed to fa­cil­i­tate state sur­veil­lance, though he said data could be shared with gov­ern­ment pub­lic se­cu­rity or­gans, if a for­mal re­quest is made. The cen­ter said it has not shared in­for­ma­tion with po­lice, pros­e­cu­tors or courts, but has used the data to as­sist a gov­ern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion of a ve­hi­cle fire.

There is a pri­vacy fire­wall built into the sys­tem. The mon­i­tor­ing cen­ter has each car’s unique ve­hi­cle iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­ber, but 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.

“To speak bluntly, the gov­ern­ment doesn’t need to surveil through a plat­form like ours,” Ding said. He said he be­lieved the se­cu­rity forces “must have their own ways to mon­i­tor sus­pects,” as other gov­ern­ments do.

DATA ON WHEELS

Many ve­hi­cles in the U.S., Europe and Ja­pan trans­mit po­si­tion in­for­ma­tion back to au­tomak­ers, 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

per­sonal ve­hi­cle data in the con­text of a spe­cific crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion and in the U.S. would typ­i­cally need a court or­der, lawyers said.

Au­tomak­ers ini­tially re­sisted shar­ing in­for­ma­tion with the Shang­hai mon­i­tor­ing cen­ter; then the gov­ern­ment made trans­mit­ting data a pre­req­ui­site for get­ting in­cen­tives.

“The au­tomak­ers con­sider the data a pre­cious re­source,” said a gov­ern­ment con­sul­tant who helped eval­u­ate the pol­icy and spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss sen­si­tive is­sues. “They gave you dozens of rea­sons why they can’t give you the data. They give you dozens of ex­cuses. Then we of­fer the in­cen­tives. Then they want to give us the data be­cause it’s part of their profit.”

There was con­cern that data pulled from elec­tric ve­hi­cles might re­veal pro­pri­etary in­for­ma­tion about, for ex­am­ple, how hy­brids switch be­tween gas and bat­tery power, and even­tu­ally set au­tomak­ers up for com­mer­cial com­pe­ti­tion with a Chi­nese gov­ern­ment en­tity. As cars be­come more con­nected, car­mak­ers are look­ing to tap new rev­enue streams built on data — a mar­ket McKin­sey es­ti­mated could be worth $750 bil­lion by 2030.

Ding said a Tesla ex­ec­u­tive came to Shang­hai and grilled him about the rules. “The first ques­tion is who are you, the se­cond ques­tion is why you col­lect this data, and the third ques­tion is how to pro­tect the pri­vacy of the users,” Ding said.

Tesla de­clined to com­ment.

Ding said con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ments bar the data cen­ter from shar­ing pro­pri­etary in­for­ma­tion.

Still, he is open about his com­mer­cial am­bi­tion. He’d like to wean the cen­ter from gov­ern­ment fund­ing and make money from the data, with­out in­fring­ing on any­one’s pri­vacy or in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty. “We have done some ex­plo­rations,” he said. “But there is still a dis­tance from truly mon­e­tiz­ing it.”

CHINA’S EDGE

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to grab data as it flows from cars gives its aca­demics and pol­i­cy­mak­ers an edge over com­pet­ing na­tions. China tends to view tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ment as a key com­pet­i­tive re­source. Though global au­tomak­ers have re­ceived bil­lions in in­cen­tives and sub­si­dies from U.S., Eu­ro­pean and Ja­pa­nese gov­ern­ments, they are con­tribut­ing data to the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment that ul­ti­mately serves Bei­jing’s strate­gic in­ter­ests.

In 2011, the U.S. De­part­ment of En­ergy’s Idaho Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory be­gan a na­tion­wide study of how elec­tric ve­hi­cle own­ers drive and charge their cars. Par­tic­i­pants gave ex­plicit writ­ten con­sent to al­low the gov­ern­ment lab­o­ra­tory to col­lect their data, and even then it wasn’t de­liv­ered in real time, said John Smart, who leads the cen­ter’s ad­vanced ve­hi­cles group. In­stead, the team got his­tor­i­cal data on a weekly ba­sis. Cars were as­signed ran­dom num­bers for the study, so own­ers re­mained anony­mous.

Noth­ing of its kind has been done since in the U.S., Smart said.

“The cost is very high to col­lect data,” he ex­plained. “The gov­ern­ment hasn’t felt the need to pro­vide that money and the man­u­fac­tur­ers

mak­ing their own in­vest­ments are choos­ing to keep the find­ings to them­selves for pro­pri­etary rea­sons.”

When it was pub­lished, in 2015, the Idaho Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory’s study was the largest ever done. All told, bun­dled with some ad­di­tional data, the study helped Idaho re­searchers an­a­lyze 21,600 elec­tric ve­hi­cles over 158 mil­lion driv­ing miles (254 mil­lion kilo­me­ters).

In the same amount of time it took Idaho re­searchers to pub­lish their study, the Shang­hai Elec­tric Ve­hi­cle Pub­lic Data Col­lect­ing, Mon­i­tor­ing and Re­search Cen­ter be­gan gath­er­ing real-time in­for­ma­tion from more than 222,000 ve­hi­cles and amassed over 4.7 bil­lion miles (7.6 bil­lion kilo­me­ters) of driv­ing his­tory.

“As a re­searcher, I think that data set could be used to an­swer hun­dreds of ques­tions,” Smart said. “I have a note­book a half an inch thick full of ques­tions.”

Global au­tomak­ers stressed that they share data to com­ply with Chi­nese reg­u­la­tions. Nearly all have an­nounced plans to ag­gres­sively ex­pand their elec­tric ve­hi­cle of­fer­ings in China, the world’s largest car mar­ket.

Volk­swa­gen Group China chief ex­ec­u­tive Jochem Heiz­mann speaks dur­ing an in­ter­view in Bei­jing. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

“There are real-time mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems in China where we have to de­liver car data to a gov­ern­ment sys­tem,”Volk­swa­gen Group China chief ex­ec­u­tive Jochem Heiz­mann said in an in­ter­view. He ac­knowl­edged that 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.

“It in­cludes the lo­ca­tion of the car, yes, but not who is sit­ting in it,” he said, adding that cars won’t re­veal any more in­for­ma­tion than smart phones al­ready do. “There is not a prin­ci­ple dif­fer­ence be­tween sit­ting in a car and be­ing in a shop­ping mall and hav­ing a smart phone with you.”

Jose Munoz, the head of Nis­san’s China op­er­a­tions, said he was un­aware of the mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem un­til the AP told him, but he stressed that the au­tomaker op­er­ated ac­cord­ing to the law. Asked by the AP about the po­ten­tial for hu­man rights abuses and com­mer­cial con­flicts posed by the data shar­ing, Munoz smiled and shrugged.

“At Nis­san, we are ex­tremely com­mit­ted to the Chi­nese mar­ket,” he said. “We see it as the mar­ket that has the great­est op­por­tu­nity to grow.”

Ford, BMW and NIO de­clined to com­ment. Mit­subishi did not re­spond to mul­ti­ple re­quests for com­ment.

Gen­eral Mo­tors and Daim­ler said they trans­mit data in com­pli­ance with in­dus­try reg­u­la­tions and get con­sent from car buy­ers on how their ve­hi­cle data is col­lected and used.

Tesla de­clined to an­swer spe­cific ques­tions and in­stead pointed to a pri­vacy pol­icy buy­ers sign at

the time of pur­chase, which stip­u­lates that ve­hi­cle data can be shared “with other third par­ties when re­quired by law,” though there was no spe­cific men­tion of the gov­ern­ment mon­i­tor­ing cen­ters in the Chi­nese ver­sion of the pol­icy.

In­ter­views with car own­ers sug­gest such dis­clo­sures aren’t ef­fec­tive. Only one of nine elec­tric ve­hi­cle own­ers was aware data from his car is fed to the gov­ern­ment — and he said he only knew be­cause he is an elec­tric ve­hi­cle en­gi­neer.

“It’s use­less to be con­cerned about it,” said Min Zeren, who owns a Tesla Model S. “If you’re con­cerned about it, then there’s no way to live in this coun­try.”

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