Connectivity, Privacy, & You: Is Your Government Watching You While You Drive?

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In the late 18th century, Jeremy Bentham devised a new form of social control he called a panopticon, in which a group of people are housed in a circular building where they can be observed at all times by a guard seated in a central location. The inmates are constantly bathed in bright light but are unable to see into the guardroom. Although it was primarily intended for prisons, the idea is applicable to hospitals, schools, and factories as well.

Panopticon and connectivity

The central idea behind the panopticon, whose name may be taken from Panoptes, a figure in Greek mythology who had many eyes, is that people who believe they are being watched will behave differently than they otherwise might. Bentham described his panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example” Particularly with regard to its use in prisons, he described it as “a mill for grinding rogues honest.”

Building A Digital Panopticon

What required a building more than 200 years ago can be done now with digital technology. Being free of surveillance today means having no cell phone, never using the internet, and living in a cabin in the woods like Ted Kaczynski, far from any security cameras. In the era of big data, none of us is truly free.

“You’re learning a lot about people’s day-to-day activities and that becomes part of what I call ubiquitous surveillance, where pretty much everything that you do is being recorded and saved and potentially can be used in order to affect your life and your freedom,” says Michael Chertoff, who headed the Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush.  The issue should concern anyone driving a connected car. If you do, somebody somewhere knows where you are at every moment. Who is tracking you and what do they do with that information?

China Data Collection Scheme Revealed

A story by the Mercury News based on a report by the Associated Press claims if you live in China and drive a so-called “new energy vehicle” — commonly known to us as an EV — it is sending 61 data points to local tracking stations funded by the government. What happens to that data is shrouded in secrecy.

If you have seen any stories about this in the news, the word “Tesla” probably figures prominently in the headline, but Tesla is not alone. Every one of China’s more than 200 EV manufacturers is complying with the program. Chinese officials say the data is used for analytics to improve public safety, facilitate industrial development and infrastructure planning, and prevent fraud in subsidy programs.

Compliance is optional, of course, but those who opt out are ineligible for government incentives. “The automakers consider the data a precious resource,” said a government consultant who helped evaluate the policy told AP. “They gave you dozens of reasons why they can’t give you the data. They give you dozens of excuses. Then we offer the incentives. Then they want to give us the data because it’s part of their profit.” So far, no company has declined to participate.

From Shanghai’s Lips To Beijing’s Ears

The data is collected by local organizations like the Shanghai Electric Vehicle Public Data Collecting, Monitoring and Research Center. Although it is a non-profit, its income comes exclusively from the central government and it shares its data with the Beijing Institute of Technology. “We can provide a lot of data from consumers to the government to help them improve policy and planning,” says Ding Xiaohua, deputy director of the center.

On the screens in Shanghai are 220,000 red dots — one for every connected car in the area. Clicking the dot reveals vehicle identification information, location, speed, state of battery charge and other information. If it is a hybrid, it shows when the vehicle switches over from battery to engine operation. In all, some 61 data points are collected.

In theory, the information is protected behind a privacy firewall but anyone who thinks the central government doesn’t have access to it probably doesn’t believe the US government logs and archives every single phone call, e-mail, and computer keystroke not only in the US but around the world every second of every day.

But Ding scoffs at the idea that the central government needs the data his agency collects in order to track people. “To speak bluntly, the government doesn’t need to surveil through a platform like ours,” he says, adding he is pretty sure the police and internal security forces “must have their own ways to monitor suspects.”

Government Surveillance

He is probably correct. China has a long history of monitoring its citizens. “Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has unleashed a war on dissent, marshaling big data and artificial intelligence to create a more perfect kind of policing, capable of predicting and eliminating perceived threats to the stability of the ruling Communist Party,” says the Mercury News.

“The government wants to know what people are up to at all times and react in the quickest way possible,” says Maya Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch. “There is zero protection against state surveillance. Tracking vehicles is one of the main focuses of their mass surveillance.”

Trade Secrets And Intellectual Property

Manufacturers are concerned that trade secrets might be revealed by such data-based surveillance. Could China use the system to confer an advantage on Chinese companies? Purloined technical information is a constant complaint foreign companies have about doing business in China and is a central component of the current trade dispute between China and the US. China simply has a different concept of intellectual property, which is to say it doesn’t believe in it.

Michael Chertoff thinks foreign corporations should stand up to China. “If what you’re doing is giving a government of a more authoritarian country the tools to have massive surveillance, I think then companies have to ask themselves, ‘Is this really something we want to do in terms of our corporate values, even if it means otherwise forgoing that market?’”

We Only Do What The Law Tells Us To

Good luck with that, Michael. “There are real-time monitoring systems in China where we have to deliver car data to a government system,” says Volkswagen Group China chief executive Jochem Heizmann, who admits his company cannot guarantee the data will not be used for government surveillance. Nevertheless, he stressed that Volkswagen keeps personal data, like the driver’s identity, secure within its own systems.

“It includes the location of the car, yes, but not who is sitting in it,” he says. Then he adds, “There is not a principle difference between sitting in a car and being in a shopping mall and having a smart phone with you.” That’s an excellent point. Virtually everyone today has voluntarily submitted to massive government surveillance in the name of convenience. We may have intellectual concerns about privacy but they are swiftly overcome by the perceived need to be connected continuously so our friends can see what we can share what we are having for dinner with the world in real time.

Jose Munoz,head of Chinese operations for Nissan, said he was unaware of the monitoring system until the Associated Press told him about it. He stressed that his company operates in strict accordance with the law. Regarding the potential for human rights abuses and commercial conflicts posed by the data sharing, Munoz smiled and shrugged. “At Nissan, we are extremely committed to the Chinese market,” he said. “We see it as the market that has the greatest opportunity to grow.”

Ford, BMW, and NIO declined to comment. Mitsubishi did not respond to multiple requests for comment. General Motors and Daimler said they transmit data in compliance with industry regulations and get consent from car buyers on how their vehicle data is collected and used.

Tesla declined to answer specific questions and instead pointed to a privacy policy buyers sign at the time of purchase which stipulates vehicle data can be shared “with other third parties when required by law.” The problem is, most car owners don’t read such disclosures. Interviews conducted by AP show only 1 in 9 car owners are aware data from their cars is shared with the government.

Tesla Asks Questions

At least Tesla made an effort to understand the process. Before it closed the deal to build a factory in Shanghai, a representative visited the Shanghai Electric Vehicle Public Data Collecting, Monitoring and Research Center and asked basic questions about how the data collection program worked. “The first question is who are you, the second question is why you collect this data, and the third question is how to protect the privacy of the users,” Ding Xiaohua says.

All this concern about privacy and digital security may be just a tempest in a teapot. “It’s useless to be concerned about it,” Min Zeren, who owns a Tesla Model S, tells AP. “If you’re concerned about it, then there’s no way to live in this country.” The real question, though, is how long will it before other nations decide that what China is doing is something they should be doing themselves?

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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