Beijing's Geolocation Masterplan – The Privacy Pitfall

Beijing has announced its intention to monitor traffic via the use of the city's 17 million China Mobile subscribers. Frances Cook reports on how privacy concerns are key to unlocking the potential of geolocation as a solution to untangling one of the most traffic-snarled cities in the world.


According to an IBM study, Beijing has the worst traffic in the world. In August 2010 the city had a traffic jam that lasted for nine days and stretched for approximately 100km between Jining in Inner Mongolia and Huai'an in Hebei province (north-west of Beijing), and 95% of citizens say the traffic has adversely affected their health.

The rise of the middle class

Although Beijing has pledged to invest 331.2 billion yuan in its subway system by 2015 and 80 billion to improve its transportation infrastructure, the middle class continues to rapidly increase - there were 248,000 new cars on the road registered in the first few months of 2010 according to the Beijing municipal taxation office -forcing the government to find new ways to ease congestion.

Earlier this year the Chinese government announced plans to monitor Beijing's traffic with geolocation technology via the city's 17 million China Mobile subscribers. Li Guoguang, deputy director of social development at the Beijing Municipal Commission of Science and Technology, told the Beijing Daily that the Beijing Residents Real-time Travel Information Platform "can effectively increase citizens' travelling efficiency and ease traffic jams".

The news caused both hope and fear: the former that more was being done to combat Beijing's congestion and the latter due to concerns surrounding privacy rights. "I think, despite the excuse of traffic control, this is part of the escalation of the use of technologies to control social discontent," Wang Songlian of the Chinese Human Rights Defenders network told The Guardian, going on to explain how a lot of activists have their phones tracked by the government and how it is concerned by its people's social unrest.

"In 2010 Beijing had a traffic jam that lasted for nine days and stretched 100km."

However, if the aggregated data from this system can free up the city's gridlocked streets, it could work all over the country - aiding its entire 1.3 billion population - due to the sheer number of China Mobile subscribers. Not long ago, according to China Daily, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced that China's mobile phone users had risen by 41.39 million in the first four months of 2011 to just over 900 million, covering nearly two-thirds of the nation's residents.

Anonymity is key

"Anonymisation of data used for tracking is key, but convincing the public that this is actually being done is the most difficult task," says David Cottingham, a member of the IEEE Vehicular Technology Society. "The vast majority of consumers are happy to use credit cards and mobile phones, knowing that their service providers can easily track them, however, we are prepared to sacrifice privacy for the benefits (i.e. accurate location information being supplied when we place an emergency call on our phones)."

The situation in Beijing is different not because the technology is new (for example, TomTom acquired Applied Generics in 2006 to improve its real-time coverage), nor because such tracking of migration patterns is unprecedented, but because it is government-run, he says. "There is no obvious opt-out, and moreover there is always a great temptation for politicians to find new uses for such systems, such as speeding fines or proving that someone was at a crime scene at a certain time."

Privacy rules at TomTom

For Nick Cohn, senior business developer of traffic at TomTom, keeping users' data anonymous is something that is treated with the utmost care, not just because of the law but also because it is an area that TomTom are careful to protect. "The individual measurements never leave our premises, they are always processed, aggregated and anonymised, so there's not even a connection to a device," says Cohn. "This is due to legal requirements, but also down to our own desire to ensure that protection, as we rely on our customers to give us anonymous measurements."

"Anonymisation of tracking data is key, but convincing the public that this is being done is difficult."

Cohn regards both global systems for mobile communications (GSM) and global positioning systems (GPS) as the two richest and most efficient sources for traffic monitoring. "GPS provides more accurate information on location and speed than the GSM data does, and the iPhone is also linked to GPS information," explains Cohn.

"However, we only collect and use it if we know the iPhone is in a TomTom cradle in the car or it could be, say, someone riding a bicycle or even a horse next to a motorway and we don't want to use that as part of our information."

GSM and GPS lead the way

In terms of GSM the company has an application that receives annonymised speeds from Vodafone, which the phone company is able to send by location based on customer calls. "In terms of accuracy, we have a bit more of a margin around the information we get from the GSM network because there's a little less certainty about the actual location and speed," he says, going on to explain that in the future the company would prefer to receive more GPS information than GSM. "GSM and GPS data sources do have some limitations, such as they don't provide us total traffic counts or volumes, but for us this is less important," states Cohn. "All of our traffic models work on speed in terms of measuring congestion - we just look at what speed is being achieved, so for our purposes that's all we need."

In the future all cars will be fitted automatically with real-time services, meaning every car bought will be traceable through geolocation technology. TomTom has been working on the development of in-dash real-time services with automotive manufacturers, such as Renault, meaning drivers are receiving real-time services, traffic information and other real-time services in-dash. "More and more automotive companies are moving towards these modern solutions and I think that channel will become increasingly important for us in terms of collecting real-time information," adds Cohn.

Other alternatives

"In the future all cars will be fitted automatically with real-time services, meaning every car bought will be traceable through geolocation technology."

What other solutions are there? "Perhaps a better way to obtain the same data would be to offer a service such as Google Latitude," says Cottingham. "Making a service opt in, and yet desirable (allowing users' friends to know where they are) means there is little outcry as the public as a whole is not tracked - and you can be certain that the provider will receive vast amounts of data on people movement."

There's no doubt that GSM and GPS offer great possibilities for understanding traffic and less congested roads; however, in China's case what remains to be seen is whether China Mobile experiences a drop in subscribers and other smaller private mobile phone companies see a sudden surge in business. "The trade-off is public acceptance versus percentage of population tracked. If consumers dislike enforced tracking, they will find ways to circumvent it, thus distorting the data. In contrast, it is in Latitude users' own interests to provide accurate data. I know which consumers I would prefer," says David.