How Bike-Sharing Services And Electric Vehicles Are Sending Personal Data To The Chinese Government
from the why-we-can't-have-nice-things dept
A year ago, Techdirt wrote about the interesting economics of bike-sharing services in China. As the post noted, competition is fierce, and the profit margins slim. The real money may be coming from gathering information about where people riding these bikes go, and what they may be doing, and selling it to companies and government departments. As we warned, this was something that customers in the West might like to bear in mind as these Chinese bike-sharing startups expand abroad. And now, the privacy expert Alexander Hanff has come across exactly this problem with the Berlin service of the world’s largest bike-sharing operator, Mobike:
Detailed location data of this kind is far from innocuous. It can be mined to provide a disconcertingly complete picture of your habits and life:
through the collection and analysis of this data the Chinese Government now likely have access to your name, address (yes it will track your address based on the location data it collects), where you work, what devices you use, who your friends are (yes it will track the places you regularly stop and if they are residential it is likely they will be friends and family). They also buy data from other sources to find out more information by combining this data with the data they collect directly. They know what your routines are such as when you are likely to be out of the house either at work, shopping or engaging in social activities; and for how long.
As Hanff points out, most of this is likely to be illegal under the EU’s GDPR. But Mobike’s services are available around the world, including in the US. Although Mobike’s practices can be challenged in the EU, elsewhere there may be little that can be done.
And if you think the surveillance made possible by bike sharing is bad, wait till you see what can be done with larger vehicles. As many people have noted, today’s complex devices no longer have computers built in: they are, essentially, computers with specialized capabilities. For example, electric cars are computers with an engine and wheels. That means they are constantly producing large quantities of highly-detailed data about every aspect of the vehicle’s activity. As such, the data from electric cars is a powerful tool for surveillance even deeper than that offered by bike sharing. According to a recent article from Associated Press, it is an opportunity that the authorities have been quick to seize in China:
More than 200 manufacturers, including Tesla, Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Mitsubishi and U.S.-listed electric vehicle start-up NIO, transmit position information and dozens of other data points to [Chinese] government-backed monitoring centers, The Associated Press has found. Generally, it happens without car owners’ knowledge.
What both these stories reveal is how the addition of digital capabilities to everyday objects — either indirectly through smartphone apps, as with Mobike, or directly in the case of computerized electric vehicles — brings with it the risk of pervasive monitoring by companies and the authorities. It’s part of a much larger problem of how to enjoy the benefits of amazing technology without paying an unacceptably high price in terms of sacrificing privacy.