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Salvo 12.14.2021 5 minutes

Where Are You Going?

City Deep Learning

China's driverless vehicles are surveillance tools. So why are we bringing them here?

Flying cars are still the stuff of Jetsonian dreams, but self-driving cars are already here. But these semi-autonomous vehicles come with a host of issues. For instance, they must be able to deal with the erratic driving behaviors of humans, as well as unexpected obstacles on the road, such as a wild deer crossing the highway. But a critical though lesser discussed problem associated with self-driving cars involves surveillance. These vehicles look likely to be used as surveillance tools, closely monitoring our every move. Worse still, China, a country that has expanded mass surveillance and integrated it into every part of Chinese life, is leading the self-driving revolution.

“Self-driving cars will represent a new mode for surveillance,” says Luis F. Alvarez León, an assistant professor of geography at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. “Through a self-driving car’s global positioning, system, navigational tools, and other data collection mechanisms, companies will be able to gain access to highly contextual data about passengers’ habits, routines, movements, and preferences.” According to León, whose research interests center around “the geographic, political, and regulatory dimensions of the informational and digital economy,” driverless vehicles provide companies with veritable treasure chests of “personal, locational, and financial data.” In turn, such data can be instantly leveraged and mercilessly monetized. 

Today’s vehicles are already highly computerized, but self-driving cars will be a game changer. The cars of the not-so-distant future won’t be products; they will be “digital platforms,” warns León. Various media companies and search engines, retailers and vendors will target us through in-car “infotainment systems.” As we witness the dawn of the Internet of Things (IoT), with physical objects (like cars) constantly exchanging data with other devices, systems, and organizations, vehicles “are likely to become more integrated with synergies across geospatial, navigation, artificial intelligence, ride-hailing, automotive and other industries and technologies.”

They’re also likely to become more integrated with political parties, especially the Communist Party of China (CCP). China’s self-driving ambitions are well-known. In 2017, the Chinese tech firm Tencent bought a 5 percent share in Tesla. Since then, China’s interest in the autonomous vehicle revolution has only grown. In fact, it’s fast becoming the market leader in driverless vehicles. Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder and CEO, recently praised Chinese automakers as “the most competitive in the world.”

One of the most competitive automakers in China is AutoX, a start-up backed by e-commerce giant Alibaba, a company with close ties to the CCP. AutoX recently launched a new fleet of fully driverless RoboTaxis. According to the company’s website, “AutoX is the first and the only company in China operating a fully driverless RoboTaxi service on public roads without any safety driver.” But, we learn, “AutoX also obtained the World’s second driverless RoboTaxi permit from California.” Why does the state of California need to source RoboTaxis from China?

To quote leading British data scientist Clive Humby, “data is the new oil,” and driverless vehicles will produce lots of it. In fact, some researchers warn that they will collect as much as 100 gigabytes of data every second. This information will likely be sent to China. Do Californians feel comfortable with the idea of their data being gathered and sent back to Beijing? Because the information will likely be sent back to China; remember that AutoX is owned by a company that has very close ties to Beijing. The CCP’s latest data law, passed in the summer of 2021, gives the Party greater control over all data held by Chinese companies. If the CCP orders companies to hand over data, they have little option but to comply.

Once these taxis arrive in California, users will need to download an app to order one. The idea of downloading a CCP-approved app should concern all readers. Until the Biden Administration rescinded the directive, U.S. armed forces personnel were banned from downloading TikTok or WeChat—two popular apps run by Chinese companies—on government-issued devices. The TSA also imposed a similar restriction. Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Global is another case in point. Researchers at NortonLifeLock have warned in the past, “if riders don’t turn off location access after completing their rides,” the Didi app “could potentially track and collect data around the clock on where the user is, where they go, and, sometimes, even how long they stay there.”

The CCP has already stolen the personal data of 80 percent of American adults. To think that it won’t use driverless vehicles to harvest even more data requires a complete suspension of disbelief. The United States and China are very much engaged in war. Not a shooting war, but a technological one, with hacking and harvesting of data replacing guns and missiles. Driverless vehicles will be a soft underbelly of American life ready for exploitation by adversaries. The U.S. government still has time to act. Revoke the California permit before it’s too late.

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