China Power

Beijing Plans Phone User Tracking

Beijing is launching a project to track the location of all the city’s cell phone users. What will it do with the data?

In a move that’s bound to worry activists, Beijing’s government has taken a step toward what it says could be better population management through the tracking of cell phone users.

It was announced this week that the central government has approved plans to test the ‘Beijing Residents Real-time Travel Information Platform,’ which will allow the city government to track the exact whereabouts of China Mobile users at any given time.

Quoting a Municipal Science and Technology Commission employee who asked not to be named, the Global Times noted that the project will allow those with access to the system to randomly check on the location of the more than 17 million China Mobile users in the city.

The city claims that the idea is all about improving traffic flow, and it’s certainly true that Beijing has some serious problems here—I wrote last year, for example, about a nine-day, 60-mile traffic jam on an expressway heading into Beijing. Indeed, according to IBM’s ‘Commuter Pain Index’ released last year, Beijing tied with Mexico City for the title of world’s worst city for emotional and economic stress resulting from congestion.

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Still, it’s not hard to imagine this information being put to ‘alternative’ uses. And it’s not really clear how much use the information snapshots would really be for traffic monitoring and improvements. After all, how does the system differentiate between someone stuck in traffic and someone sitting at a roadside café? Or someone riding a bicycle?

It could, of course, all be quite innocent. But the timing just after the unrest in the Arab world is a reminder of how useful such information could be for those that want to keep tabs on potential ‘troublemakers’.