China to track cell phones for traffic reasons--really

Maybe the Chinese government really does just want to make sure there are no more nine-day, 62-mile traffic jams, experts say.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
2 min read

A Chinese government committee announced plans this week to try to ease vehicle traffic congestion by monitoring the whereabouts and movement of millions of mobile phones.

"Aha!" you might say, cynically thinking it's a ruse by the government to conduct surveillance on its citizens. But that kind of surveillance is already being done there (as it is in the U.S.).

If you had been in the gnarly 62-mile traffic jam that took nine days to clear up near Beijing last August you wouldn't be so suspicious of the news. Beijing, an urban hub in northern China, has a population of more than 22 million.

"In Beijing, where [I'm from], the traffic is a nightmare," Andrew Lih, an associate professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, told CNET today. "They are going from the 1930s to the 1980s in one-fifth the time.... It's a genuine announcement and there's a real need for it, but it seems creepy in American eyes."

The announcement from the Beijing Science and Technology Commission talks about publishing real-time information based on cellular base station technology that can determine how far and in what direction the phones are traveling. The system can target specific congested areas and include public transit systems. Eventually, commuters will be able to get specific information about their routes that can be used to make more efficient travel plans.

It's not clear from the announcement exactly how the system will work, but it likely involves triangulating an approximate location of a phone based on signals between the device and cell towers in the area. This may or may not involve the GPS (Global Positioning System) in the phone itself.

"GPS is useful, but isn't necessary at this stage; if the cell tower wants it, it can get it," said Don A. Bailey, a senior security consultant at iSec Partners.

"Overall, what they're doing (in China) is not at all strange. They can get as much location information as they want now, so they wouldn't have to create some new program to get it. They'd just get it," he said.

Sure, there is the potential for misuse, but, again, that's nothing new. Telecom providers can see the phone number associated with a phone and get access to the billing information, all of which must be turned over to the government if agents come knocking on the door, according to Bailey.

"Not everything China does is underhanded and shady," he said.