Joyce Chang Blog Post

Joyce Chang

Information Privacy Law

Professor Ira Rubenstein

March 21, 2017

As part of a broader government reaction to recent eruptions of deadly violence in the region of Xinjiang, Chinese authorities have ordered all drivers there to install a Chinese-made satellite navigation system in their vehicles. Under this compulsory measure, all private, secondhand, and government vehicles as well as heavy vehicles such as bulldozers and big rigs in Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture must install the navigation system by June 30, 2017. Drivers who refuse to do so will not be allowed to buy fuel at gas stations.

According to official announcements, the new requirement is intended to help the government “ensure social security and safety and promote social stability and harmony.” More specifically, the rule is aimed at helping authorities track people in a vast but sparsely populated region where ethnic tensions have given rise to regular terrorist attacks. Government officials have pointed to cars as a key means of transport for terrorists and a consistent weapon of choice when justifying the need to monitor and track all vehicles in the area.

Because this new measure will eventually affect hundreds of thousands of vehicles in the prefecture, the government will be able to add a large amount of personal data by way of tracked vehicle movements to its existing records of its citizens. The scope of this measure greatly increases the reach of government surveillance. The government’s ability to access and use the location and movement data is also guaranteed by the fact that the vehicle-tracking program will use China’s homegrown Beidou satellite navigation system instead of the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS).

The intrusiveness of location tracking, especially of permanent long-term location and movement monitoring, is apparent, but individual privacy in China consistently cedes ground to security concerns. This issue is not limited to China alone as governments around the world struggle to strike a balance between privacy and security concerns. However, given China’s ability to pass and enforce security measures with relative ease and its recent investments into both low-tech and hi-tech methods of surveillance, it seems as if it is only a matter of time before there is little individual privacy, if any, left in the country.