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

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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.

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.


Photo:

CHANDAN KHANNA/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

BEIJING—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.

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 initially be voluntary but will be made mandatory for new vehicles in January 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 it contributes to air pollution.

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

“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 which will implement the plan, as well as the Ministry’s Traffic Management Research Institute, which drafted the relevant standards, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

To implement the network, radio-frequency identification—or RFID—chips will be affixed to car windshields. Reading devices installed along roads will read those cars’ information when they pass and transfer the data to the Ministry of Public Security, one of the people briefed said.

The system will register information such as the license plate number and automobile color, one of the people said. The system will know when vehicles passed checkpoints. But unlike GPS tracking systems, it won’t reveal a car’s position at all times.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, RFID chips are widely installed on cars for automated toll road payments. They are also used in some fleet vehicles like commercial trucks at areas including ports to track the locations of the vehicles and the goods they are carrying.

But the Chinese plan “would certainly be 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.

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


Photo:

thomas peter/Reuters

Mexico, for example, has adopted plans for a national system but experts say the implementation has been scattered—and Mexico sells around 1.5 million new vehicles a year, compared to around 29 million a year in China.

Currently, authorities including in China more commonly track cars through video images of license plates. Surveillance cameras are generally still cheaper than RFID readers. But RFID has advantages such as functioning in foggy weather when visibility is poor and faster information-processing speed, 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 limit vehicle entry into certain zones based on license plate numbers to curb pollution.

Late last year, Beijing released some details of its plan, effective on a voluntary basis starting July 1, and it 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 China’s public security’s Traffic Management Research Institute unveiled the draft standards and sought public comments, it said the new system is 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 development of domestic 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 to taxis, trucks and public vehicles that it imports real time into a national integrated command platform.

The southeast city of Shenzhen said it introduced a similar system in 2016. Shenzhen’s government said the device would collect data related to vehicles such as the license plate number and the car color, 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 identified through sensors that 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.”

Xiao Xiao

in Beijing contributed to this article.

Write to Yoko Kubota at yoko.kubota@wsj.com

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