In the red: Electric cars share location data and more with Chinese


2014 Tesla Model S in China

2014 Tesla Model S in China

In this post "1984" world, most consumers acquiesce to sharing their data with companies in return for better, quicker, more convenient, cheaper, or even free services.

How many, however, would voluntarily turn over data about everywhere they went and when to the government, particularly a Communist government?

According to a new AP report, that's exactly what electric car drivers do in China every time they get behind the wheel. 

Local laws in China require more than 200 electric-car manufacturers—but not the makers of internal combustion cars—to transmit 61 data points, including global positioning location as well as state of charge, the most recent charge, the make, model, color, and total odometer mileage of each vehicle in real time to dozens of government-backed monitoring centers—not unlike traffic centers in the U.S.

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Chinese officials say the data is used to improve public safety, facilitate development and infrastructure planning, and to prevent fraud in subsidy programs.

Critics, including former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, told the AP that the information collected is far more than the Chinese government needs to achieve those stated objectives and worry that the data can be used to implement a "more perfect state of policing" to predict and eliminate perceived threats to the ruling Chinese Communist Party. 

AP sources say other countries don't collect similar levels of data.

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The automakers are required to share the data for their electric cars to be eligible for government incentives.

The automakers who follow the mandate include Tesla, General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, Daimler, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Chinese electric startup automaker NIO, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

The Chinese government collects data on 1.1 million vehicles across the country, and the government has targeted a ten-fold increase in electric-car sales by 2025. Starting next year, all automakers that sell in China must meet minimum quotas of electric car sales. Automakers are racing to expand in the Chinese market, already the largest and fastest-growing car market in the world.

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"The government wants to know what people are up to at all times and react in the quickest way possible," said Maya Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Tracking vehicles is one of the main focuses of their mass surveillance."

Chinese officials say that the data collection centers can't link a car's VIN number with its owner without making a special request to the automaker—which they say they have done—or going through the police. In the U.S., sharing vehicle location information with law enforcement, even in a specific criminal investigation, would require a court order.

As with any electronic vehicle data shared with outside entities, though, knowing where a car is, and even who owns it is no guarantee of knowing who's sitting inside. And tracking a car isn't that different from tracking location and other personal data from a cell phone.

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