Mobile phone data may help Beijing’s traffic flow but location information could be used for other purposes
The Chinese government has approved Beijing’s plan to monitor the movements of its 17 million China Mobile phone subscribers. The authorities have said that this will allow them to control road traffic flows.
The pilot scheme to develop a software platform for the monitoring service will be completed in June but it has already caused a stir among privacy advocates around the world.
In the West, companies such as Facebook and Twitter are offering mobile phone geolocation as a service that can aid their users by offering social benefits. Subscribers volunteer their information to allow the service suppliers to offer advice on local attractions or even local bargains – but only with the user’s permission.
Beijing traffic worst in the world
A recent IBM study rated the capital’s traffic problem as the worst in the world and last year saw proof of this when a 100 kilometre (62-mile) traffic jam lasted for nine days. Beijing’s Municipal Government sees the ability to monitor citizens’ movements as a way to map out and understand traffic flow problems.
Li Guoguang, deputy director for the Social Development Department of Beijing’s Municipal Commission of Science and Technology, said that the Beijing Residents Real-time Travel Information Platform will detect the location of subscribers as soon as their phone is switched on and registers with a base station. The information will then be aggregated to give a real-time view of crowd and traffic movement.
How the system will differentiate between drivers, passengers, pedestrians and anyone who is simply working at their office desk has not been disclosed.
China Mobile has agreed to allow access to the geolocation information but civil rights watchers are concerned that the information may be used for other purposes.
Rebecca MacKinnon, Global Voices Online co-founder, told the New Yorker newspaper: “The Chinese Communist Party can move like a gazelle when it senses that its grip on social stability might be at stake. Within days of Mubarak’s downfall, Beijing had rounded up liberal activists, slowed the web to a crawl, and poured security forces into areas that it thought could be used for the kind of online organising that is sweeping the Middle East.”
With such concern for quelling civil disobedience, allowing the authorities to lay hands on personal data would give the government a fine-tuned tool to monitor the movement of dissidents. Foreign nationals, known opponents of the Communist Party and migrant workers could easily be monitored. Such information would have given the Egyptian and Libyan authorities immense control because mobile phones played a crucial part in organising protest groups, an issue that China is obviously concerned about.
Li denies that such a thing could happen. He said that the collected data would only be used for traffic monitoring and control and offered his assurance that privacy of individuals would be protected, but did not specify how this would be implemented.
He also said, “It is also fairly beneficial for population management. Information obtained through the mobile phone location is more thorough in terms of figuring out the population of a certain dwelling district.”
Echoing this, the technical panel that signalled the go-ahead for the traffic project has suggested that the system could be linked to other departments to provide support for improved “city management”.