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A Chip in the Windshield: China’s Surveillance State Will Soon Track Cars

China is establishing a nationwide program to track cars using an electronic identification system, according to records and people briefed on the matter, adding to a growing array of its surveillance tools used to monitor its citizens.

A facial recognition camera installed at an intersection in Shanghai takes pictures of people crossing roads or offending traffic rules. A new electronic vehicle system will add to China’s ability to surveil its citizens.

BEIJING—China is establishing an electronic identification system to track cars nationwide, according to records and people briefed on the matter, adding to a growing array of surveillance tools the government uses to monitor its citizens.

Under the plan being rolled out July 1, a radio-frequency identification chip for vehicle tracking will be installed on cars when they are registered. Compliance will be voluntary this year but will be made mandatory for new vehicles at the start of 2019, the people said.

Authorities have described the plan as a means to improve public security and to help ease worsening traffic congestion, documents show, a major concern in many Chinese cities partly because clogged roads contribute to air pollution.

But such a system, implemented in the world’s biggest automotive market, with sales of nearly 30 million vehicles a year, will also vastly expand China’s surveillance network, experts say. That network already includes widespread use of security cameras, facial recognition technology and internet monitoring.

“It’s all happening in the backdrop of this pretty authoritarian government,” said Ben Green, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society who is researching use of data and technology by city governments. “It’s really hard to imagine that the primary use case is not law enforcement surveillance and other forms of social control.”

China’s Ministry of Public Security, a police agency, will implement the plan, whose standards were drafted by the ministry’s Traffic Management Research Institute. Neither responded to requests for comment.

The system will register information such as the license plate number and automobile color, said one of the people briefed on the plan.

To implement the network, radio-frequency identification, or RFID, chips will be affixed to car windshields. Reading devices installed along roads will identify cars as they pass and transfer the data to the Ministry of Public Security, said one of the people. Unlike GPS tracking systems, the system won’t pinpoint a car’s position at all times.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, RFID chips are widely used on cars for automated toll-road payments. They are also installed in some commercial fleets, for example, trucks at ports to track their location and the goods they are carrying.

But the Chinese plan “would certainly be the largest single program managed by one government in the world,” said Manuel Moreno, vice president at Neology Inc., a San Diego-based company and a major provider of RFID technology systems for automobiles in the U.S. and Mexico.

An image from SenseTime surveillance software recently identified details about people and vehicles in Beijing.

Mexico, for example, has adopted plans for a national system but experts say the implementation has been scattered—and its annual new-car sales of about 1.5 million vehicles are dwarfed by China’s total. Details on China’s plan for installing RFID readers weren’t immediately available.

At present, authorities in China and elsewhere more commonly track cars through video images of license plates. Surveillance cameras are generally cheaper than RFID readers. But RFID has advantages such as functioning in foggy weather and faster information processing, said Sanjay Sarma, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on RFID technology.

The RFID system could also obtain the vehicle’s information even if fake license plates are used, experts said, a problem in some places in China that try to curb pollution by limiting vehicle entry into certain zones based on license plate numbers.

Late last year, Beijing released some details of its car-tracking plan, which can be seen online through China’s national standards disclosure system. It doesn’t say why authorities are introducing this system. But older documents shed some light.

In late 2014, when the Traffic Management Research Institute unveiled the draft standards and sought public comments, it said the new system was needed to address growing problems such as traffic congestion and terrorist attacks with vehicles. It said these “have posed serious challenges and threats to social and economic lives, especially to public safety.”

The move also would promote the domestic development of an RFID chip industry, it said, signaling that only chips made by Chinese companies would be used under the program.

Pilot programs exist in some Chinese cities. The eastern city of Wuxi said it introduced an RFID system in 2016 for taxis, trucks and public vehicles.

The southeast city of Shenzhen said it introduced a similar system in 2016. Its government said the device would collect data related to vehicles such as the license plate number and the car color, but not personal information.

“The security of citizens’ privacy will be ensured,” it said on its website.

But experts say such personally identifiable data isn't needed to run cities efficiently. For instance, congestion can be monitored by sensors that simply count the number of vehicles.

“It’s kind of like another tool in the toolbox for mass-surveillance,” said Maya Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch, who studies China’s surveillance programs. “To be able to track vehicles would definitely add substantial location details to the chain of data points that they already have.”

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