It's not just Google that's facilitating China's surveillance state

For many, a car symbolizes freedom and individual choice. In China, electric cars serve as a tool for government surveillance. The Associated Press reports that car manufacturers around the world have built their EVs to send tracking data back to China’s government without the knowledge of their owners — including big names like Tesla, Ford, and GM:

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 government-backed 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 improve public safety, facilitate industrial development and infrastructure planning, and to prevent fraud in subsidy programs.

The government official in the AP’s clip above doesn’t limit Beijing’s use to those purposes. He notes that other purposes of this real-time data stream are “supervision and behavioral analysis.” Industrial development and infrastructure planning do not require real-time tracking of individuals by government officials, and neither does “public safety” — at least not in the normal sense of the term.

But other countries that are major markets for electronic vehicles — the United States, Japan, across Europe — do not collect this kind of real-time data.

Worth noting: the data transmission feature exists worldwide. In other countries, however, it’s used for voluntary services provided by private companies, allowing owners to opt out if they so desire. In the US, the AP reminds readers, the government would have to get a court order to access the information, and only in specific situations where probable cause exists of a crime.

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, marshalling big data and artificial intelligence to create a more perfect kind of policing, capable of predicting and eliminating perceived threats to the stability of the ruling Communist Party.

That’s the same idea behind China’s efforts to develop their social credit score system based on near-total video surveillance married with facial-identification technology. This tightens the net on China’s subjugated people by not just working off of random appearances in public but actually tracking them where they go — allowing the government not just to track individuals in real time, but also on a historical basis.

The excuse of compliance with “local laws” sounds a lot like Google’s excuses for building an online surveillance system for China’s government. Car manufacturers want to sell products in China, so they are selling out their customers and helping a tyrannical government oppress them. This seems even worse than Google’s collaboration with Beijing in that their customers haven’t been told of this surveillance; only about 10% of EV drivers in China are aware of the transmission of this data to the government.

This won’t end in China. Other governments will start demanding access to the same data for whatever pretexts they claim, be it “infrastructure planning” or “public safety” as they define it. Even here in the US, politicians have floated the idea of a mileage tax to replace or augment the gasoline tax, a revenue stream that has slowed in recent years. It would take this kind of tracking system to implement, and not just on EVs, and it would require government access to that tracking data as well. From what we see in China, the car manufacturers of the world will only be too happy to sell us down the river when that time comes.