China said it may begin tracking cellphone users in Beijing through location technology it hopes will help city authorities better manage traffic. But the announcement also sparked fresh concerns that the government may be using mobile technology to surveil its residents.
In an announcement, made through Beijing's Municipal People's Government Web site, the Chinese government said it would track 17 million cellphone users in Beijing through location technology to "publish real-time dynamic information to ease congestion and improve the efficiency of public travel."
Beijing is notorious for its traffic congestion. Last August, a 60-mile jam into the capital city lasted nine days. The Chinese government is also notorious for its firm grip on the flow of information in and out of the country. Authorities have tapped into e-mail accounts of foreign journalists and Democracy activists and censored certain Web sites in the nation.
"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," said Joshua Gruenspecht, a cyber security fellow at the U.S.-based Center for Democracy and Technology.
"The government can then use that history against people and for human rights reasons, that can be very politically disturbing," he said.
In Beijing, 70 percent of residents have a cellphone run by China Mobile. In a statement, Li Guoguang, China's Science and Technology Commission Deputy Director of Social Development, said they could determine the location of users by the connection of a cellphone antenna to one of the multitude of base stations across the city. He said the country is still weighing the service and how to build a platform to collect and deliver information.
Gruenspecht said any government or cellphone company can track its users. By simply connecting to a cell tower or through other location-based services such as global positioning systems, a mobile user’s whereabouts can be pinpointed even to a city block.
But the announcement by the Chinese government is the first he has heard of a nation using location services to comprehensively track its users. And the announcement comes amid heightened awareness over the use of mobile devices and Internet communications sites such as Facebook and Twitter to organize and fuel civil protests against the governments of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
But those technologies have also served to harm activists and protestors, some civil rights groups say. Facebook's real name policy puts people at risk for retaliation by governments, some say.
In a statement, Nizar Zakka, the Secretary General of IJMA3, the Arab communications technology regulatory group, urged social media companies to develop protective measures for social media users:
"Social media had demonstrated its potential, on the streets of Tehran, Cairo and elsewhere, to serve as an agent for change and virtuous development," Zakka said, according to reports. "However, as its power becomes more apparent, the desire of governments to use this very tool of free expression to suppress dissent increases accordingly. These days, social media is also being used in order to monitor, track, and ultimately muzzle the very activists whose activities it most supports."