Automakers Helping China Spy on Drivers: Report

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

As concerns grow about the Chinese government’s technology-driven “social credit” system of controlling its citizens, the Associated Press reports that the country, through regulations for electric vehicles, is requiring global automakers to supply telemetric data from their vehicles that could help the one-party state spy on its people.

American, German, and Japanese automakers, including General Motors, Ford, Tesla, Daimler, BMW, Nissan, and Mitsubishi, are among 200 manufacturers whose products must transmit location information and dozens of other pieces of driving data in real time that ultimately end up in monitoring centers that can report that data to the Chinese government. Chinese officials say that the data collection is for the purposes of policing potential fraud in EV subsidy programs, facilitating industrial and infrastructure planning and development, and to improve public safety. Since mileage is also recorded, the data could also be used for road tax purposes. The car companies insist they are simply obeying local laws.

So far, the rules only apply to alternative energy vehicles, but critics are concerned that similar rules may be applied to other transportation classes, particularly as cars become more connected to each other and to external data streams.

The governments in other major markets for electric vehicles, Japan, Europe and North America, have no similar data collection requirements.

The Shanghai Electric Vehicle Public Data Collecting, Monitoring and Research Center is technically a non-governmental organization, but it was established with the approval of a local government commision and it is funded by the central government. In any case, very little happens in China without the approbation of the powers that be in Beijing.

Ding Xiaohua is the deputy director of the center. “We can provide a lot of data from consumers to the government to help them improve policy and planning,” he told AP. The focus of the center is a video screen that fills a wall. One that screen there are over 200,000 dots, each representing one vehicle, typically a passenger car. If a monitoring agent clicks on one of those dots, a window opens with an identifying number for that vehicle, plus information on make, model, mileage, and battery charge.

Regulations published two years ago require alternative energy vehicles to transmit data back to the manufacturers, who in turn send more than five dozen data points to collection centers like Ding’s.

That data is also collected by a national monitoring center run by the Beijing Institute of Technology, which oversees the use of over a million vehicles across China. The BIT, a research university, operates under the supervision of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

A million vehicles in the largest automotive market in the world doesn’t sound like much, but the Chinese government is using production minimums for alternative energy vehicles to force automakers to make more EVs, aiming for electric and other new energy vehicles to make up 20 percent of new car and truck sales by 2025.

Ding insists that his data center is not intended to facilitate government surveillance, though he said that if a formal request was made by government security organizations, that data would be shared. He alluded to the China’s massive surveillance of its citizens in saying the government doesn’t need the center’s data to keep on eye on people.

Human rights activists are skeptical. “The government wants to know what people are up to at all times and react in the quickest way possible,” Maya Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch told AP. “There is zero protection against state surveillance… Tracking vehicles is one of the main focuses of their mass surveillance,” she added.

Car companies treat data as one of their most valuable assets and are loathe to share that information, even with authoritarian governments. That data is seen as underlying a revenue stream that is potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. To encourage cooperation from the automakers, Chinese officials made data sharing a prerequisite for qualifying for government incentives on EVs.Automakers also harbor concerns that proprietary technical information might be shared with competitors. Considering China’s relatively lax attitude towards protecting intellectual property, those concern seem appropriate, but the Chinese insist there are firewalls to protect IP.

Ding recognizes the monetary value of the data his center collates, and is frank about commercial ambitions, saying that monetizing the data they collect would allow them to end government funding.

When asked about potentially participating in mass government surveillance, Ford, BMW and Mitsubishi declined to comment. GM and Daimler said their data transmission complies with local industry regulations. Tesla pointed to their purchase agreements that say that vehicle data can be shared when “required by law.”

Volkswagen Group China chief executive Jochem Heizmann said, “There are real-time monitoring systems in China where we have to deliver car data to a government system,” and acknowledged that there were no guarantees that the data would not be used for government surveillance. He stressed that they don’t share driver identity with the government, but that would be easy to determine from cross referencing registration data.

Jose Munoz, who runs Nissan’s China operations, was unaware of the monitoring system until the AP asked him for comment, but he stressed that Nissan complies with local laws.

Mr. Ding isn’t the only person concerned with making money.

When asked about the potential for human rights abuses coming out of sharing driving data, 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.”


Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

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