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In China, private car data is sent to the government by law

When Shan Junhua bought his white Tesla Model X, he knew it was a fast and beautiful car.

What he did not know was that Tesla continuously sent information about the exact location of his car to the Chinese government.

Tesla is not alone. China has asked all electric vehicle manufacturers in China to make the same report – potentially adding a surveillance kit available to the Chinese government when President Xi Jinping increases the use of technology to track Chinese citizens.

"I don't know this," Shan said. "Tesla can have it, but why did they send it to the government? Because it's about privacy."

More than 200 manufacturers, including Tesla, Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and NIO start-up electric vehicles registered in the US, send position information and dozens of other data points to government-supported monitoring centers, The Associated Press has found. Generally, that happens without the knowledge of the car owner.

Car makers say they only comply with local laws, which apply only to alternative energy vehicles. Chinese officials say the data is used for analysis to improve public safety, facilitate industrial development and infrastructure planning, and to prevent fraud in the subsidy program.

But other countries which are the main markets for electronic vehicles – the United States, Japan, throughout Europe – do not collect this kind of real-time data.

And critics say the information gathered in China exceeds what is needed to fulfill the stated state goals. This can be used not only to undermine the competitive position of foreign car manufacturers, but also to monitor – especially in China, where there is little protection for personal privacy. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has waged a war on dissent, gathered large data and artificial intelligence to create a more perfect police force, capable of predicting and eliminating perceived threats to the stability of the ruling Communist Party.

There are also concerns about the precedent of these rules being set to share data from next generation connected cars, which may immediately send more personal information.

"You learn a lot about people's daily activities and that is part of what I call surveillance everywhere, where almost everything you do is recorded and stored and potentially can be used to influence your life and your freedom," said Michael Chertoff, who served as Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush and recently wrote a book called "Exploding Data."

Chertoff said global car makers must ask themselves difficult questions. "If what you do is give the government a more authoritarian tool to carry out massive oversight, I think then companies must ask themselves," Is this really something we want to do in terms of values? " our company, even if it means not leaving the market? "


The Shanghai Electric Vehicle Collection, Monitoring and Data Center is located in the gray tower in the suburban Jiading district. One floor from the cafeteria, wall-sized screens glow with dots, each representing a vehicle trailing Shanghai's road to create a large real-time map that can reveal where people live, shop, work and worship.

Click a point randomly, and a window appears with a number that identifies each vehicle, along with its brand and model, distance and battery power.

All said, the screen shows data from more than 222,000 vehicles in Shanghai, most of them are passenger cars.

"We can provide a lot of data from consumers to the government to help them improve their policies and planning," said Ding Xiaohua, deputy director of the center, a non-profit that is very aligned and funded by the government.

According to national specifications published in 2016, electric vehicles in China send data from car sensors back to the manufacturer. From there, car manufacturers send at least 61 data points, including location and details about batteries and engine functions to local centers such as those monitored in Shanghai.

The data also flows to the national monitoring center for new energy vehicles run by the Beijing Institute of Technology, which draws 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 refused to answer questions.

Tesla is one manufacturer that is legally bound to send information. Foto / 123RF
Tesla is one manufacturer that is legally bound to send information. Foto / 123RF

The numbers will be much bigger. Although sales of electric vehicles only accounted for 2.6 percent of last year's total, policymakers have said they want new energy vehicles to account for 20 percent of total sales by 2025. Starting next year, all car manufacturers in China must meet production minimums for new. Energy vehicles, part of Beijing's aggressive efforts to reduce dependence on foreign energy sources and place themselves at the forefront of a growing global industry.

The Chinese government has shown interest in tracking vehicles.

"The government wants to know what people do at all times and react in the fastest way," said Maya Wang, senior Chinese researcher for Human Rights Watch. "There is no protection against state surveillance."

"Tracking vehicles is one of the main focuses of their mass surveillance," he added.

Last year, authorities in Xinjiang, a turbulent region in western China that has become a laboratory for China's surveillance state, ordered residents to install GPS devices so that their vehicles could be tracked, according to official media. This summer the Ministry of Public Security, a police agency, began launching a system to track vehicles using windshield radio frequency chips that can identify cars when they pass by a roadside reading device.

Ding insisted that the electric vehicle monitoring program was not designed to facilitate state supervision, although he said data could be shared with the government's public security organs, if an official request was made. The center said it had not shared information with police, prosecutors or the court, but had used the data to help government investigations into vehicle fires.

There is a privacy firewall built into the system. The monitoring center has a unique vehicle identification number for each car, but to connect the number to the personal details of the car owner, it must be through the car – steps that have been taken in the past.

Chinese law enforcers can also independently connect vehicle identification numbers with car owner's personal information.

"Speaking bluntly, the government does not need to monitor through platforms like ours," Ding said. He said he believed the security forces "must have their own ways to monitor the suspects," as other governments did.


Many vehicles in the US, Europe and Japan send position information back to the automaker, who gives it to the car tracking application, a map showing the closest facilities and emergency service providers. But the data stops there. Governments or law enforcement agencies will generally only be able to access private vehicle data in the context of certain criminal investigations and in the US usually require a court order, the lawyers said.

The car initially refused to share information with the Shanghai monitoring center; then the government made data transmission as a prerequisite for getting incentives.

"The automakers regard the data as a valuable resource," said a government consultant who helped evaluate the policy and spoke on condition that anonymity was to discuss sensitive issues. "They give you dozens of reasons why they can't give you data. They give you dozens of reasons. Then we offer incentives. Then they want to give us data because it's part of their profits."

There are fears that data taken from electric vehicles may reveal ownership information about, for example, how hybrids switch between gas and battery power, and ultimately regulate cars for commercial competition with Chinese government entities. As cars become more connected, carmakers are looking to squeeze new revenue streams built on data – the McKinsey market is estimated to be worth US $ 750 billion by 2030.

Ding said a Tesla executive came to Shanghai and roasted it about regulations. "The first question is who you are, the second question is why you collect this data, and the third question is how to protect user privacy," Ding said.

Tesla declined to comment.

Ding said the confidentiality agreement prohibits data centers from sharing exclusive information.

However, he is open about his commercial ambitions. He wants to wean the center of government funding and make money from data, without violating anyone's privacy or intellectual property. "We have done some exploration," he said. "But there is still a distance to really cash it in."


The ability of the Chinese government to extract data as it flows from cars gives academics and policymakers superiority to competing countries. China tends to view technology development as the main competitive resource. Although global carmakers have received billions of incentives and subsidies from the governments of the US, Europe and Japan, they donated data to the Chinese government which ultimately served Beijing's strategic interests.

In 2011, the US Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory began a national study on how electric vehicle owners drive and fill their cars. Participants gave explicit written agreements to allow government laboratories to collect their data, and even then not sent in real time, said John Smart, who heads the group's sophisticated vehicle group. Instead, the team gets historical data every week. Cars are given a random number for research, so the owner remains anonymous.

There is no type that has been done since in the US, Smart said.

"The cost is very high for collecting data," he explained. "The government does not yet feel the need to provide the money and producers who make their own investments choose to keep the findings for themselves for reasons of ownership."

When published, in 2015, Idaho National Laboratory studies were the largest ever conducted. All said, bundled with some additional data, the study helped Idaho researchers analyze 21,600 electric vehicles over 158 million miles driving (254 million kilometers).

At the same time, Idaho researchers to publish their research, the Shanghai Electric Vehicle Collection, Monitoring and Research Center began to gather real-time information from more than 222,000 vehicles and collect more than 4.7 billion miles (7.6 billion kilometers) of history driving.

"As a researcher, I think that the data collection can be used to answer hundreds of questions," Smart said. "I have a half-inch thick notebook with questions."

Global producers emphasize that they share data to comply with Chinese regulations.

Almost all have announced plans to aggressively expand their electric vehicle offerings in China, the world's largest car market.

"There is a real-time monitoring system in China where we have to send car data to the 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 oversight, but stressed that Volkswagen kept personal data, such as the driver's identity, safe in its own system.

"This includes the location of the car, yes, but not who is sitting in it," he said, adding that the car would not reveal more information than what had been done by smart phones. "There is no difference in principle between sitting in a car and being in a shopping center and having a smart phone with you."

Jose Munoz, head of Nissan China operations, said he did not know the monitoring system until the AP told him, but he stressed that car manufacturers operate in accordance with the law. Asked by the AP about the potential for human rights violations and commercial conflicts caused by data sharing, Munoz smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

"At Nissan, we are very committed to the Chinese market," he said. "We see it as a market that has the greatest opportunity to grow."

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

General Motors and Daimler said they sent data in accordance with industry regulations and obtained approval from car buyers about how their vehicle data was collected and used.

Tesla refused to answer specific questions and instead pointed to the sign of the buyer's privacy policy at the time of purchase, which stipulates that vehicle data can be shared "with other third parties when required by law," although there is no specific mention of government monitoring centered on the Chinese version of the policy that is.

Interviews with car owners show that such disclosures are not effective. Only one in nine owners of electric vehicles realized the data from his car was fed to the government – and he said he only knew because he was an engineer in electric vehicles.

"There is no point in worrying about that," said Min Zeren, who owns the Tesla Model S. "If you worry about that, then there is no way to live in this country."

– AP

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