In China, your car could be talk­ing to the gov­ern­ment

The Island Packet (Sunday) - - News - BY ERIKA KINETZ

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.

China has called upon all elec­tric ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers in the coun­try 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, the As­so­ci­ated Press has found. 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 im- prove 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 re­al­time 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, mar­shal­ing big data and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to cre­ate a more per­fect kind of polic­ing, ca­pa­ble of pre­dict­ing and elim­i­nat- ing 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?’ ”


The Shang­hai Elec­tric Ve­hi­cle Pub­lic Data Col­lect­ing, Mon­i­tor­ing and Re­search Cen­ter sits in a gray 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 re­al­time 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 non­profit 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 flow 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.


An Bao­jia makes a phone call near his Tesla ve­hi­cle at a charg­ing sta­tion in Shang­hai in Septem­ber. More than 200 man­u­fac­tur­ers, in­clud­ing Tesla, Volk­swa­gen, BMW, Daim­ler, Ford, Gen­eral Mo­tors, and Nis­san, trans­mit position in­for­ma­tion and dozens of other data points to Chi­nese gov­ern­ment-backed mon­i­tor­ing cen­ters.

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