Last week, you may have heard, Beijing's Municipal People's Government web site reportedly announced plans to start leveraging mobile phone technology to better manage road traffic, using “real-time dynamic information to ease congestion and improve the efficiency of public travel.”
Put another way, they plan to use the location-based nature of mobile phones to track 17 million mobile phones in a way that generates traffic data.
According to the Washington Post:
In a statement, Li Guoguang, China's Science and Technology Commission Deputy Director of Social Development, said they could determine the location of users by the connection of a cellphone antenna to one of the multitude of base stations across the city. He said the country is still weighing the service and how to build a platform to collect and deliver information.
Not surprisingly, human rights and privacy groups worry that Beijing will also use the technology as a surveillance tool. And while Beijing does have a legitimate need to manage its increasingly notorious traffic jams, the fact that they just happen to be proposing a mobile tracking system at a time when authorities have been stepping up police presence to ward off possible public protests inspired by current events in Egypt (whilst also blocking related search terms on microblogs) is being seen by human rights groups as a very unlikely coincidence – to say nothing of last year’s law banning anonymous or pseudonymous mobile accounts.
At this stage, it’s only fair to mention that using mobiles to monitor road traffic congestion isn’t a new idea. The Mobile Millennium project from the University of California at Berkeley and Nokia has been testing such a mobile app since 2008. Bangalore launched a mobile traffic monitoring initiative a year before that.
Whatever the Beijing government ends up using the tracking system for, however, the debate is illustrative of the double-edged sword and potential privacy minefield of location-based services.