China’s surveillance state already tracks people’s faces. Now it’s also going to track their cars, the Wall Street Journal has reported (paywall).
From July 1, China’s Ministry of Public Security will oversee a program to install a radio-frequency identification chip in the windshields of new cars when they’re registered. While installing the chips won’t be mandatory this year, having an “electronic license plate” (link in Chinese), as authorities are calling it, will be required from 2019, according to the Journal. The plan, which authorities say is meant to curb congestion, involves setting up hundreds of thousands of chip-reading units to track passing cars, according to a report from the website of a Chinese automotive trade show (link in Chinese).
The car tracking system has been piloted in some parts of China—such as Wuxi, Tianjin, and Beijing (link in Chinese)—starting in 2016.
A subsidiary of China’s troubled ZTE telecom firm—one of the companies at the center of the US-China trade and tech war—is among the companies that have been developing (link in Chinese) the standards and technology for the program, which will also help with another Chinese goal: boosting the local chip industry.
While the technology is used in other countries too, for example with automated toll paying, China’s approach to surveillance raises questions about how vehicle tracking might be used in future. China has rolled out a number of measures to identify and monitor its citizens in recent years—including those not under investigation for any crime—from facial recognition to a DNA database, citing public safety as the reason. Public authorities have nabbed suspects through surveillance at concerts and other public gatherings, publicizing their successes in ways that appear intended to downplay public fears of the increasing presence of these technologies.
The vehicle-tracking plan does not go as far as the methods applied in Xinjiang, the far western region home to the Muslim Uyghur ethnic group. China has taken a troubling approach to the ethnic group in the wake of outbreaks of violence in recent years, creating an enormous monitoring network (paywall) there. A year ago, police in one part of Xinjiang began requiring cars to install GPS tracking, which allows a car’s location to be known at any time, not only when it passes reading units.
Ziyi Tang contributed reporting to this story.