Chinese Mobile Phones, Like American Ones, Are Helping the Government Keep Track of People's Whereabouts

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March 3 2011 5:19 PM

Chinese Mobile Phones, Like American Ones, Are Helping the Government Keep Track of People's Whereabouts

In a report on how

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on foreign journalists, out of concern about possible protests, the New York Times brings up another government initiative:


Beijing officials announced Wednesday that they intended to monitor the movements of millions of residents by means of information transmitted by their cellphones. One official was quoted on a government Web site as saying that the new program would provide "real-time information about a user’s activity."

The project aims to monitor all Beijing residents who use mobile phones — about 20 million people — to detect unusually large gatherings. One official said the primary use would be to detect and ease traffic and subway congestion. But Chinese media reports said government officials could use the data to detect and prevent protests.

Last year, the Chinese government began requiring new mobile-phone customers to show identification and register by name. 

The public's willingness to carry personal tracking computers provides a rich source of data to curious corporations , researchers, and governments everywhere. Japan reportedly has its own project underway using cell phones to track the population's movement through urban space—using "aggregate data...from which individual users are never identified." And American law enforcement has found a bounty of evidence in people's ever-smarter, ever-more-data-collecting portable devices .

Information doesn't know what privacy is. The old tech-utopian credo that information wants to be free? From information's point of view, it means that information wants to be captured.

Tom Scocca is the managing editor of Deadspin and the author of Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future.