The Chinese government, in its ongoing pursuit to create the dystopian police state dreamed up in many a science fiction tale, is reportedly readying a new vehicle identification system that will be capable of monitoring the movement of citizens.
The Wall Street Journal reported on the system, which will begin rolling out on July 1st of this year. Cars operating in the country will be adorned with radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips that the government will use to track drivers throughout the country. Compliance will be optional for the first year but will become mandatory for new vehicles starting in 2019.
The system will mark a sizable expansion of China’s already massive surveillance state, which the government seems intent on monitoring every aspect of its citizens’ lives. The nation’s law enforcement agencies have already littered cities with surveillance cameras in both private and public spaces and earlier this year shared their intention to combine them into a single network, called “Sharp Eyes,” that will be linked to facial recognition technology and artificial intelligence capable of tracking and surviving individuals.
China already uses similar technology, primarily with the purpose of shaming its citizens for minor infringements. Local governments have plastered big screen TVs in public places to show the face of jaywalkers and embarrass people who have unpaid debts. Police have also used facial recognition to ID suspected criminals, including on instance where they were allegedly able to pick out the face of a wanted man at a concert of 50,000 people.
Cars would just be one more data point in the increasingly detailed map of citizen behavior that the government can create, though it is certainly a major one. Per the Wall Street Journal, China is the world’s largest automotive market, selling nearly 30 million vehicles each year. By requiring the RFID chips to be fixed to the windshields of vehicles, the country can rapidly add new information about citizens as the new, tracker-equipped cars make their way onto the roads.
RFID chips in cars aren’t particularly new, nor do they have to be despotic; they are commonly used in fleet commercial vehicles and for automated payment at toll roads in the US and elsewhere. Chinese officials swear the system is intended to improve public safety and lessen traffic congestion but plenty of people have their doubts, per WSJ:
“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.”
“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.”
The system won’t give the government an up-to-the-second location of citizens, but it will be able to provide China’s Ministry of Public Security with regular updates as people pass roads and stops equipped with reading devices. That information—which will include the license plate number, car make, model, and color—will be transferred to the agency, which they can use as they see fit (read: tracking people).