March 6, 2011 | By rainey Reitman

China Deputizes Smart Phones to Spy on Beijing Residents’ Real-Time Location

The Chinese government has announced plans to track the real-time location of all cell phones in the city of Beijing, purportedly to ease traffic problems that have plagued the city. Human rights activists have expressed concerns that this plan may well be the newest attempt by the Chinese government to surveil its citizenry against any attempted uprising. As Wang Songlian of the Chinese Human Rights Defenders network told the Guardian:

For ordinary people, the government is worried about social unrest. Often there's a spark somewhere and everyone gathers and puts out information. By registering people and tracking them, it enables them to find out about particular protests and punish individuals.

Location privacy is an endangered concept. As technology evolves, many networked devices are becoming increasingly more portable and affordable — and increasingly sharing one’s real-time location data without a users’ explicit knowledge or consent. The threats to location privacy in the era of the smart phone are multifarious, including applications that leak private data and obsolete laws that fail to protect civil liberties. As the situation in China demonstrates, modern smart phones may also act as a mechanism for governments to vacuum up data on citizens who might protest authoritarian regimes. While EFF continues to champion cell phone location privacy in U.S. courts and on the Hill, the fundamental privacy conundrum posed by modern cell phones is that they cannot function properly without simultaneously exposing locational information.

This means that Beijing citizens have few choices when it comes to protecting their location privacy from the government, an especially problematic scenario considering China passed a law last year mandating that people register their cell phones in their real names. Currently, the only solution for true location privacy, whether in China or anywhere else, is turning off the mobile phone and removing the battery. Unfortunately, there’s no feasible and easily achievable consumer-facing software or hardware anywhere that can effectively circumvent location tracking while leaving modern smart phones functional.

There are, however, some hacktivists and academics beginning to explore creative solutions to this problem. Among the ideas being circulated is the possibility of a “mobile mesh network” connectivity – having cell phones connect directly to one another, rather than routing signals through cell phone towers. While there may be other security concerns around mesh networking, such communication methods hold promise for maintaining communications in "Internet blackout" scenarios such as those seen recently in Egypt and Libya. We look forward to future developments in this arena.


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