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Who's surprised that China Mobile knows where you are?

It's hardly surprising that China Mobile can figure out about where its subscribers are when the phone is on. So why the shock when CEO Wang Jianzhou said, "We know who you are, but also where you are"?

Graham Webster
Formerly a journalist and consultant in Beijing, Graham Webster is a graduate student studying East Asia at Harvard University. At Sinobyte, he follows the effects of technology on Chinese politics, the environment, and global affairs. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.
Graham Webster
2 min read

It's hardly surprising that China Mobile can figure out about where its subscribers are when the phone is on (or when the battery's in). This sort of technology is standard in developed mobile networks, and it's fueling a wave of business innovation and "locative technology."

So why was it so shocking to an AFP reporter when China Mobile CEO Wang Jianzhou told an audience at the World Economic Forum that "we know who you are, but also where you are"? Will at Imagethief has already made the alarmist journalism argument, so I'll leave that to him. (The AFP headline ran under the unnecessary headline, "China's mobile network: a big brother surveillance tool?")

What struck me was U.S. Rep. Ed Markey's (D-Mass.) surprised reaction. Markey said the news was "bone chilling" and told AFP, "I have my eyebrows arched so high they're hitting the ceiling."

I just doubt this really could have been shocking to Markey, who is perhaps the U.S. Congress' most prominent name on telecommunications policy. Along with liberal members of the FCC board, he's been a friend to the "net neutrality" movement, and he was received warmly last year in Memphis at Free Press' National Conference on Media Reform.

Anecdotally, I would say the assumption among people involved with media and politics in Beijing is that it is trivially easy for the government to tap cell phones and gather location data based on which tower your phone is in touch with. E-mail also is often assumed not to be secure. Markey must know the U.S. government can do this too, especially in light of the illegal wiretaps by the Bush administration. (The secret monitoring of U.S. citizens would actually have been legal if they had bothered to get their warrants rubber-stamped by a secret court, so don't think due process is a defense in the United States.)

If Markey was really shocked, he was ignorant. If he was faking it, he was taking part in China alarmism on an issue that is news to practically no one in China. This is not the place to discuss the merits and demerits of government surveillance, but no one is surprised that it's a fact. I wish U.S. politicians wouldn't be so willing to make such statements about China just to grab the spotlight when journalists are unnecessarily aroused.