Beijing to track people's movements via their mobile phones

The plan is meant to relieve traffic congestion but could set off worries over privacy

China plans on tracking the movements of people in Beijing using their mobile phones, a measure that while aimed at relieving traffic congestion, could set off concerns over misuse.

China announced the plans in an article posted on a government website earlier this week. The system would work by tracking the movements of the 17 million users in Beijing currently signed on with the telecommunications carrier China Mobile. Once the users turned on their phone, the system could pinpoint their location and what direction they were heading.

The plan would tackle Beijing's growing traffic problem, which has resulted in highway jams that have lasted as long as nine days. But China has also gained a reputation for using technology to squelch dissent. The government has allegedly hacked the email accounts of human rights activists and launched cyberattacks against websites carrying online protest calls.

The new system would use mobile phone information to monitor traffic flows in different areas of the city, and see how residents are using the subway and bus systems. The article did not say when or exactly how the system will be implemented, only that it has passed expert review.

Users will be able to sign up and receive data from the system, the notice said. But it's unclear whether or not residents of Beijing can voluntarily bow out of the system to protect their privacy. The Beijing Science & Technology Commission behind the project could not be reached for comment.

Although the Chinese government intends to use the data for traffic purposes, "anytime data like this is collected, there is a potential for misuse," said Mark Natkin, managing director for Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting.

China has also made previous efforts to collect data on mobile phone users. Last year, the government began requiring people to use their real identities when setting up mobile phone accounts. China has more than 850 million mobile phone users, many of whom bought their numbers without using their actual ID.

Experts have said these past moves could be a part of a larger agenda by the Chinese government to reduce anonymity among the populace. In the case of China's plan for a tracking system in Beijing, it could potentially monitor an individual's movement, Natkin added.

"By U.S. standards, European standards, that would be considered a violation of a person's privacy, but not necessarily here (in China)," he said.

Not everyone sees a problem with the planned tracking system.

"The project seems like it will look at the data on a large scale. The data they are dealing with is so big, I don't think it will result with any privacy problems," said Zhao Wei, CEO of Chinese security company Knownsec. "I think it could actually be effective in solving traffic problems."

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Michael Kan

IDG News Service
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