A Tesla Model X P90D full electric luxury crossover SUV. (Getty Images)
  • A report from the Associated Press indicates that electric-car makers, including Tesla, transmit data from its owner-operated vehicles to the Chinese government.
  • Volkswagen, BMW, Ford, Mitsubishi, and many others are telling the Chinese government where drivers are alongside a whole batch of other data points, the AP found.
  • The newswire service reports that the data is sent to "government-backed monitoring centre," and the data-collection largely happens without drivers being aware.
  • While the stream of information from electric cars adds another layer to China's arsenal of digital tracking tools, President Xi Jinping retains many other sources of data in his militarisation of social surveillance in China.

A new report from the Associated Press indicates that electric-car makers, including Tesla, transmit data from its owner-operated vehicles to the Chinese government.

More than 200 manufacturers like Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Mitsubishi and US-listed electric vehicle startup Nio, tell the Chinese government where you are with positioning data alongside a whole batch of other data point, the Associated Press has found.

AP reports, that the data is sent to "government-backed monitoring centres," and largely happens without drivers being aware that their movements and other information is being tracked.

While the tracking of electric cars adds another layer to China's growing arsenal of social surveillance tools, the information is publicly available, according to the AP.

"Electric vehicles in China transmit data from the car's sensors back to the manufacturer. From there, car makers send at least 61 data points, including location and details about battery and engine function to local centres," The AP reports.

The decision by the Chinese government to obligate electric vehicle makers to provide such data points for centralised and undefined uses stands in contrast to other major car markets like the United States, Japan, and Europe which are generally not in the business of harvesting real-time location data from privately-owned vehicles.

Modern cars also generally gather data on the car's internal systems and track information to better understand driving habits and transmit that information back to the car manufacturer. But the notion of sending data to the government would generally invite significant privacy concerns.

Not so in the China of today under President Xi Jinping, who heads up a special all-powerful cyber unit that sits above every other committee and government department overseeing anything cyber-side, from propaganda, surveillance to internet censorship.

In February 2014, Xi created for himself a new title and position as head of the newly created Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission (CCAF), sitting above even the central propaganda department or the State Internet Information Office, assuming personal control of all aspects of China's cyber-future.

In April, Xi made a surprise and somewhat historic visit to a cyberspace conference in Beijing, detailing his vision of what cyberspace governance with Chinese characteristics looks like.

"China has achieved historic progress in the development of cybersecurity and informatisation, formed a model of cyberspace governance with Chinese characteristics, and developed a strategic thought to advance the country's strength in this regard," the Xinhua News Agency reported Xi as saying.

Xi has been very big on enhancing military-civilian integration across "cybersecurity and informatisation," calling it a "key and cutting-edge frontier field with the greatest vitality and potential in the drive for integration," China Daily reported in April.

Whatever that means, it is clear that Xi intends for the Chinese Communist Party to form the centre of a military approach to public governance from where his CCAF can literally direct the traffic.

China is building and applying facial-recognition technology; tech giants monitoring their own customers; forcing citizens to download apps that monitor their content; requiring Chinese tech companies, like Alibaba, to share data; having law enforcement officers wear special glasses to identify people in crowded places, like streets and train stations, and the list goes on.

Analysts have suggested Xi is building the world's first digital autocracy beginning with a digitally-enhanced social-credit system that scrutinises every action and decision, good or bad, and collates a potentially limitless variety of data to provide each citizen with a colour-coded social rank that describes who you are in the eyes of the CCP.

"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," Michael Chertoff, who was homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush told AP.

Chinese officials say the electric-car data is only used to improve public safety, facilitate industrial development and infrastructure planning, and to prevent fraud in subsidy programs, the AP reports.

However, while sales of alternatively fuelled cars made up 2.6% of China's total car sales last year, China has made it very clear the creation and distribution of new energy vehicles is national priority.

According to Bloomberg China is leading the shift to electric vehicles.

Every second electric car sold today goes to China and Bloomberg expects this to continue through 2025, when 19% of all passenger vehicle sales will be in China. That will coincide nicely with the vision of local policymakers that AP says are targeting 20% of all car sales by the same year.

EV sales in China hit 95,000 in May 2018, up 128% on May 2017.

From next year, AP says that all automakers in China must meet production minimums for new energy vehicles, part of Beijing's aggressive effort to reduce dependence on foreign energy sources and place itself at the forefront of the alternative energies industries.

These government regulations on sharing data from next-generation connected cars sets a worrying precedent, AP observes, and if China can hit its new car targets in 2025, then the government will be gleaning a whole new and rich stream of data without even leaving the government-backed monitoring centre.

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