SHANGHAI (AP) – When Shan Junhua bought his white Tesla Model X, he realized that it was a nice fast car. What he did not know is that Tesla constantly sends information about the precise location of his car to the Chinese government.
Tesla is not alone. China has called on all electric vehicle manufacturers in China to submit the same type of reports, which could potentially enrich the rich set of monitoring tools made available to the Chinese government by President Xi Jinping who uses more and more technology to follow the Chinese citizens.
"I did not know it," said Shan. "Tesla could have it, but why is it passing it on to the government? Because it's about privacy. "
More than 200 manufacturers, including Tesla, Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Mitsubishi and the US NIO, listed start-up company, transmit position information and dozens of other data points to government-supported monitoring centers, Associated Press found. In general, this occurs without the knowledge of car owners.
Automakers claim that they only comply with local laws, which only apply to alternative energy vehicles. The Chinese authorities stated that the data was used for analysis to improve public safety, facilitate industrial development and infrastructure planning, and prevent fraud in subsidy programs.
But other countries that are important markets for electronic vehicles – the United States, Japan, the whole of Europe – do not collect this kind of data in real time.
And critics say the information gathered in China goes beyond what is necessary to achieve the stated goals of the country. It could be used not only to undermine the competitive position of foreign manufacturers, but also for surveillance, particularly in China, where privacy protections are few. Under Xi Jinping's leadership, China has unleashed a war on dissent, gathering voluminous data and artificial intelligence to create a more perfect type of police that can predict and eliminate perceived threats to the stability of the Communist Party. in power.
We also worry about the precedent created by these rules for sharing new generation connected car data, which may soon be transmitting even more personal information.
"You learn a lot about people's daily activities and that's part of what I call ubiquitous surveillance, where just about everything you do is saved and saved and can potentially be used to change your life and your life. your freedom, "said Michael Chertoff, secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security under the presidency of George W. Bush, who recently wrote a book called" Exploding Data. "
Chertoff said global builders should be asking tough questions. "If you give a government in a more authoritarian country the tools to do massive surveillance, then I think companies have to ask, 'Is this really something we want to do in terms of our business, even if it does mean otherwise renounce this market? & # 39;
A GREATER BROTHER?
The Shanghai Public Electric Vehicle Data Collection, Monitoring and Research Center is located in a gray tower in the Jiading Suburban District. On one floor of the cafeteria, a screen the size of a wall shines with dots, each representing a single vehicle traveling on Shanghai's roads to create a huge real-time map that could reveal where people live, buy, work and prostrate.
Click on a random point and a window appears with a number identifying each vehicle, as well as its make and model, mileage and the charge of its battery.
In total, the screen presents data from more than 222,000 vehicles in Shanghai, the vast majority of which are passenger cars.
"We can provide a lot of consumer data to the government to help them improve their policies and their planning," said Ding Xiaohua, deputy director of the center, a non-profit organization closely aligned with and funded by the government.
According to the national specifications published in 2016, electric vehicles in China transmit to the manufacturer the data of the sensors of the car. From there, manufacturers send at least 61 data points, including localization and detailed information about battery and engine operation, to local centers such as the one monitored by Ding in Shanghai.
The data is also routed to a national new energy vehicle monitoring center run by the Beijing Institute of Technology, which collects information on more than 1.1 million vehicles across the country, according to the report. National Big Data Alliance for New Energy Vehicles. The National Observatory refused to answer questions.
These numbers are about to become much bigger. Although electric vehicle sales accounted for only 2.6% of last year's total, the makers said they wanted the new energy vehicles to account for 20% of total sales. By 2025. From next year, all Chinese automakers will have to abide by Energy vehicles are part of Beijing's aggressive efforts to reduce its dependence on energy sources foreigners and are at the forefront of a growing global sector.
The Chinese government has shown interest in tracking vehicles.
"The government wants to know what people are doing at all times and react as quickly as possible," said Maya Wang, chief researcher for China at Human Rights Watch. "There is no protection against state surveillance."
"Vehicle tracking is one of the main objectives of their mass surveillance," she added.
Last year, authorities in Xinjiang, a troubled region of western China that became a laboratory for the Chinese state's surveillance, ordered residents to install GPS devices so that their vehicles could be tracked. according to the official media. This summer, the Department of Public Safety, a police department, began implementing a vehicle tracking system using windshield radiofrequency chips to identify cars when they pass by. roadside reading devices.
Ding insisted that the electric vehicle monitoring program is not designed to facilitate state surveillance, although he said the data could be shared with the regulators. public security of the government, if a formal request is made. The center said that he had not shared any information with the police, prosecutors or courts, but that he had used this data to help the government conduct an investigation into the fire of a vehicle.
A privacy firewall is built into the system. The monitoring center has the unique identification number of each vehicle, but to link it to the personal data of the owner, it must go through the car manufacturer – a step already taken. Chinese law enforcement can also independently associate the vehicle identification number with the personal information of the car owner.
"Frankly speaking, the government does not need to monitor via a platform like ours," Ding said. He added that he thought the security forces "must have their own ways to monitor the suspects", like other governments.
DATA ON WHEELS
Many vehicles in the United States, Europe, and Japan transmit position information to car manufacturers, who pass it on to car tracking applications, maps showing nearby amenities, and emergency service providers. . But the data stop there. Public authorities or law enforcement could generally access personal vehicle data only in the context of a specific criminal investigation. In the United States, they would usually need a court order, lawyers said.
Car manufacturers initially resisted sharing information with the Shanghai Watch Center; the government then made data transmission a prerequisite for obtaining incentives.
"Builders view data as a valuable resource," said a government consultant who helped evaluate the policy and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues. "They gave you dozens of reasons why they can not give you the data. They give you dozens of excuses. Then we offer the incentives. Then they want to give us the data because that's part of their profits. "
It was feared that the data extracted from electric vehicles would reveal confidential information about, for example, how hybrids switch between fuel and battery power, and end up putting car manufacturers in a competitive market environment. with a Chinese government entity. As cars become more and more connected, automakers are looking to tap into new sources of data-driven revenue – a market estimated by McKinsey of up to $ 750 billion by 2030.
Ding said that a leader of Tesla had come to Shanghai and had informed him of the rules. "The first question is who you are, the second question is why you collect this data, and the third question is how to protect the privacy of users," said Ding.
Tesla declined to comment.
Ding said the confidentiality agreements forbade the data center from sharing confidential information.
Yet he remains open to his commercial ambition. He would like to wean himself off the center of public funds and take advantage of the data, without infringing on anyone's privacy or intellectual property. "We did some explorations," he said. "But there is still a distance to really monetize it."
THE EDGE OF CHINA
The Chinese government's ability to capture data from cars gives its academics and policymakers an edge over competing countries. China tends to view technological development as a vital competitive resource. Although US, European and Japanese governments have received billions of incentives and subsidies, global automakers are providing the Chinese government with data that ultimately serves Beijing's strategic interests.
In 2011, Idaho's national laboratory at the US Department of Energy launched a national study of how electric vehicle owners drive and charge their cars. Participants gave explicit written consent to allow the government laboratory to collect their data. Even if it was not delivered in real time, said John Smart, who leads the center's advanced vehicle group. Instead, the team obtained historical data every week. Random numbers were assigned to the cars for the study, so the owners remained anonymous.
No such thing has been done since in the United States, Smart said.
"Data collection is very expensive," he explained. "The government has not felt the need to provide this money and the manufacturers who invest themselves choose to keep the results for themselves for property reasons."
When it was published in 2015, the Idaho National Laboratory study was the largest ever. In total, combined with some additional data, the study allowed Idaho researchers to analyze 21,600 electric vehicles over a distance of 254 million kilometers.
At the same time that researchers from Idaho released their study, the Shanghai Electric Vehicle Data Collection, Monitoring and Research Center began collecting real-time information on more than 222,000 vehicles. and has accumulated more than 7.6 billion kilometers of driving history.
"As a researcher, I think this dataset could be used to answer hundreds of questions," said Smart. "I have a half-inch thick notebook filled with questions."
Global automakers pointed out that they shared the data to comply with Chinese regulations. Almost all have announced plans to aggressively expand their electric vehicle offering in China, the world's largest car market.
"There are real-time surveillance systems in China where we have to pass data on cars to a government system," said Jochem Heizmann, Volkswagen Group General Manager for China. He acknowledged that he could not guarantee that the data would not be used for government oversight, but pointed out that Volkswagen keeps his personal data, such as the identity of the driver, in his own systems.
"This includes the location of the car, yes, but not who is sitting in it," he said, adding that cars would not reveal more information than smart phones. "There is no basic difference between sitting in a car and at a mall and having a smart phone with you."
Jose Munoz, Nissan's China operations manager, said he was not aware of the surveillance system until the PA told him, but he pointed out that the automaker was operating according to the law . Asked by the PA about the potential for human rights abuses and commercial disputes posed by data sharing, Munoz smiled and shrugged.
"At Nissan, we are extremely committed to the Chinese market," he said. "We see it as the market that offers the greatest growth opportunity."
Ford, BMW and NIO refused to comment. Mitsubishi has not responded to several requests for comments.
General Motors and Daimler stated that they were transmitting data in accordance with industry regulations and were getting agreement from car buyers on how their vehicle data was collected and used.
Interviews with car owners suggest that such revelations are not effective. Only one of the nine owners of electric vehicles knew that the government was transmitting data from his car – and he said that he only knew it because he is an electric vehicle engineer.
"It's useless to worry about this situation," said Min Zeren, owner of a Tesla Model S. "If you worry, there's no way to live in this country."
Associated Press researcher Chen Si collaborated with Shanghai and economic editor Yuri Kageyama worked with Tokyo.
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