The Chinese government announced last week it may use location-based services to track the 17 million people in its capital city who use cell phones. According to The Washington Post, the move would further an effort to "publish real-time dynamic information" that will aid in improving the flow of traffic in Beijing.
It's true that Beijing is notorious for its traffic snarls, and publishing such information may indeed help officials figure out how to ease the congestion. But as an IT Business Edge colleague noted on Friday, "If you believe that's all China will do with that information, then maybe Charlie Sheen really is a rock star from Mars."
It's what officials aren't saying that makes privacy advocates nervous. China, after all, is known for tracking Internet users' activity to prevent dissidents from getting their messages out via those channels. It makes sense that mobile device tracking would be next. In fact, my boss wondered the other day if the fact that officials are open about the practice now doesn't mean they've already been doing it secretly for some time.
Center for Democracy and Technology Cyber Security Fellow Joshua Gruenspecht told the Post:
What happens when you start tracking cellphone users is that you maintain a constant history of what users are doing, their habits, who they associate with. The government can then use that history against people and for human rights reasons, that can be very politically disturbing.
Not surprisingly, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is also up in arms over the development. In a post published Sunday, Rainey Redman said:
Currently, the only solution for true location privacy, whether in China or anywhere else, is turning off the mobile phone and removing the battery. Unfortunately, there's no feasible and easily achievable consumer-facing software or hardware anywhere that can effectively circumvent location tracking while leaving modern smart phones functional.
In other words, Chinese citizens have no choice.