Hey, You Sitting in Beijing Traffic? Big Brother is Watching

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The news was packaged innocuously enough. In order to alleviate Beijing’s horrible traffic jams, a new project called the Dynamic Information Platform for Public Travel would use residents’ cellphones to track where they were and figure out how to make traffic flow more smoothly. The People’s Daily, the Chinese government’s mouthpiece, had this to say, in its ever fluid prose:

“The deputy director of the [Beijing Municipal Science and Technology Commission] Li Guoguang said that this platform is to utilize cellular location technology through 17 million China Mobile cell phone users to obtain real-time information on their activities. It is available to acquire living and working situations for residents, which will give the government a leg up to grasp a precise understanding of the population distribution and flow distribution at different times at selected areas.

“By sending dynamic travel information to citizens, they can adjust their trip plan in downtown areas to effectively relieve traffic congestion”, the official said.

“It is also fairly beneficial for population management,” Li said, “Information obtained through the mobile phone location is more thoroughly in terms of figuring out the population of a certain dwelling district.”

All of us who have idled in Beijing’s notorious traffic should be ecstatic to hear that something is being done about the Chinese capital’s bumper-to-bumper jams. But think again about the spooky implications. The Beijing government has just announced that it will be using cellphones to monitor in real time, every person’s whereabouts. Does that strike you as just a teeny bit alarming?

Journalists and dissidents know to turn off their phones when out on sensitive missions, lest the police follow them using their mobile signals. But most Chinese probably aren’t quite aware how their Nokias or Iphones act as honing devices. Given the Beijing authorities’ iron-fisted response to the non-event that was China’s Jasmine Revolution, one can only imagine how avidly any cluster of mobile phones will be followed by the local police. Of course, there may be comic implications: Is that throng of cellphones in a busy commercial area of Beijing an incipient protest against the government? Or is it just a line of people at a particularly popular hotpot restaurant? Luckily for the Public Security Bureau folks, they have the means to investigate—and they’re not shy in telling us just how easily they can track us down.