In the on-going privacy versus national security struggle, security has notched another victory – this time in a remote, northwest province of China. The prefecture has been plagued by domestic violence at the hands of separatists, but it would seem that the Chinese government wishes to deflect some of that criticism by blaming the attacks on Islamic terrorism.
To thwart the mayhem, the government has resorted to surveilling private and public vehicles. In complying with a new edict, the average, law-abiding Chinese citizen is surrendering another vestige of their ever-dwindling freedom.
In this latest chapter of the privacy-security battle, detailed in an article in the Guardian, police in the Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture of Xinjiang have resorted to a drastic countermeasure. Authorities have ordered residents to install GPS tracking devices in their vehicles, in order to keep permanent tabs on driver’s movements. As a result, once again, the Chinese citizen, like many around the globe, has meekly relinquished one of the few remaining freedoms – that of the open road- in a nod toward supposed security and safety. Will we ever learn?
The propaganda arm of the prefecture’s government, Loulan News, said that the GPS trackers in individual’s cars would help “ensure social security and safety and promote social stability and harmony”. This is because cars are a popular means of getting around this remote region. You see, in the government’s mind, since terrorists use cars, all cars carry may terrorists. Rather than deal with the criminals, which is difficult, it is easier to surveil everyone.
And oh, by the way, the by-product benefit for the government is that another portion of everyday life is now under its microscope, and the citizenry under its thumbs.
The penalty for non-compliance is denial of petrol purchases at filling stations. Good luck trying to drive around the capacious countryside without gas! It sort of guarantees universal compliance, wouldn’t you think? Speaking about universal compliance, even “fast-moving terrorist-favored” vehicles, like bulldozers, fall under the decree. And trucks are also included. Indeed lorries have been used in notorious attacks such as the ones in Nice and, more recently, in Berlin. What good would a GPS do in those attacks?
China has been no stranger, either, to attacks using motor vehicles. In recent years, radicals with links to Xinjiang used vehicles to carry out a series of terror attacks, including one in a May 2014 market bombing in the capital Urumqi, and in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October 2013. But, it’s difficult to imagine how tagging those vehicles with GPS could have prevented those assaults either, given the facts of the cases – the surprising swiftness of the assaults, and the element of surprise in both of them.
The latest area to be affected, though sparsely populated, has seen its share of sectarian violence – even predating the notorious riots of 2009. Since that time, the province has become more and more a police state. That is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. It may merely delay the inevitable ethnic clashes. James Leibold, a Xinjiang expert at Australia’s La Trobe university, said, “It probably( just) pushes resentment further underground.” For some in the political arena, out of sight is out of mind.
Many observers can understand the government turning to individually tracking cars with GPS devices, as opposed to taking broader measures like ubiquitous security cameras. In this far-flung remote location, cameras just aren’t practical. By the same token, it is easy to see why civil libertarians and privacy advocates elsewhere, who are looking on, would be alarmed that terrorism and the threat of violence against the public may be merely a ruse to allow the government to further insinuate itself into private lives.
One thing, however, is not debatable: once such a further attack on privacy such as this becomes ingrained in policy and accepted in practice, the trend never reverses itself, and it only leads to more repressive measures in the future.