The Chinese government is readying a program that will make it possible to track citizens’ cars using RFID chips, according to The Wall Street Journal. The program, which will be voluntary at first but mandatory for new vehicles starting in 2019, starts rolling out on July 1st.
The program is being put in place by China’s Ministry of Public Security, and the ministry’s Traffic Management Research Institute. By installing RFID chips on the windshields of new cars, and reading devices on the side of China’s roads, government officials reportedly hope to be able to study and improve congestion, therefore helping to reduce pollution — a major priority for China’s president Xi Jinping. They also hope to use it to help stem the rise of vehicular terrorist attacks, according to documents reviewed by the WSJ.
The system wouldn’t be able to locate a car at any given moment or location, like with GPS, and it’s unclear how much information the government plans to store on each chip beyond the color of the car and its license plate number. This is also not the first system of its kind. Mexico is working on implementing a similar system, and countries like India, South Africa, Brazil, and Dubai use RFID chips for everything from paying for gas, parking, and tolls to issuing tickets and collecting penalties.
“It’s part of this larger effort to create total information awareness in China for the government.”
But China’s system has a chance to be far larger than any of these due to the size of the country, its population, and in turn, the tens of millions of cars it sells on the new car market. Combine this with Xi’s penchant for surveillance, and there are inevitable security concerns. James Andrew Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thinks it’s likely that the RFID system will become another one of these tools that the government uses to monitor citizens.
“The Chinese government has gone all out to create a real surveillance state. [There’s] social credit, and facial recognition, and internet and telecom monitoring,” he tells The Verge. “It’s part of this larger effort to create total information awareness in China for the government.”
The RFID system would slot in alongside a number of surveillance programs that are already in place. For instance, China already recognizes and tracks license plates with security checkpoint cameras in some regions. Facial recognition is common, whether it’s being done by mounted cameras or with smart glasses. The government has been rolling out a so-called “social credit” system, where citizens are rated by their finances, criminal behavior, and other factors. It also blocks many internet-dependent services like apps and websites and surveils its citizens on the ones it controls. The government also forces shops to use government-approved routers and restricts free speech in a number of ways, like the recent move to ban video parodies.
The RFID system, Lewis says, is “just another step for this kind of overarching control. [Any] positive benefits are outweighed by the intrusiveness of the whole thing.”