Beijing's Spy in the Cab

Taxis in Beijing and other Chinese cities get high-tech security and surveillance equipment, including live microphones capable of transmitting audio from within the vehicle to a central monitoring station.

Beijing-taxi-305.jpg A taxi driver waits for passengers along a street in Beijing, April 18, 2007.

HONG KONG—Beijing's thousands of taxicabs are being fitted with video cameras and satellite technology that transmits a live audio feed of what is being said in the cab back to a computer for monitoring and linguistic analysis, according to industry sources.

"It was about two or three months ago. All the taxis in our company had this fitted," an employee at a major Beijing cab company said. "There is a screen which displayes the exact location of the vehicle. The taxi is also able to send information back to us at the control station. All the taxis registered with us have had the modifications."

She said the new equipment could be used in “dangerous situations” or emergencies requiring police intervention.

"In the case of any danger, the cabs are all fitted with cameras. I think it's on the right-hand side of the cab, above the passenger, to the right. That camera is constantly switched on," she said.

"We can't see the video back at the control station but we can do audio surveillance. The GPS signal enables us to hear whatever is happening on board the cab," the employee said.

"It's all computerized. If anything happens in the cab it will show up on the screen. If anything happens that needs reporting to the police there are people who are hired just to do surveillance. There are more than 100 of them," she added. "Those are people who are just hired to monitor the in-cab microphones. There are even more of us to control and dispatch the cars."

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Taxis in China are being fitted with video cameras and satellite technology transmitting a live audio feed of what is being said in the cab back to a monitoring computer. Graphic: RFA
Official media have reported that cameras and satellite systems have been fitted in taxicabs in other major cities in China, including the far-west Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, sparking complaints in the press over privacy.

In some cities, the cameras automatically take at least one picture of every occupant as a back-up in case of later criminal activity, according to the official Communist Party People's Daily news Web site.

According to Fireeyes, a Beijing-based company selling GPS technology to the transportation industry, the Beijing Olympics has provided the biggest boost to Chinese sales of GPS (global positioning) products.

"Before 2008 the Beijing authorities will have spent a total of 1.9 billion yuan (U.S.$278 million) to install GPS tracking systems on all of the city's 10,000 buses," the company said in a statement on its Web site.

"It also has a budget of 680 million yuan (U.S.$99 million) to complete its installation in the city's taxi-cabs, so a central monitoring station will know the precise location of every individual cab at all times," the company said.

Safety cited

Official media say the cameras in taxis are aimed at guaranteeing the safety of drivers, who suffered an unprecedented number of attacks across the country in 2003. Industry literature emphasizes the convenience of being able to dial a cab from one's cellphone and have it sent direct to one's location using GPS navigation.

Meanwhile, China's foreign ministry spokesman denied claims from U.S. Senator Sam Brownback that Chinese hotels had been ordered to monitor Internet browsing patterns among foreign guests during the Olympics.

"The relevant accusation is unfair," Liu Jianchao told a regular news briefing Thursday. "An individual's privacy is respected and guaranteed in China."

"We do not go beyond normal security measures and relevant security practices and measures that are commonly employed in the international arena, whether in hotels or in other public places."

Authorities in Beijing have already installed thousands of hidden cameras throughout the city to "help authorities keep watch for illegal activity," the People's Daily said.

More than 100,000 police and paramilitary troops have been deployed throughout the city, while surface-to-air missiles have been deployed to guard some Olympic venues. Security guards are now manning every station on the capital's extensive subway system ahead of the opening ceremony on Aug. 8, checking all bags carried onto trains by passengers.

The Greek authorities spent an estimated U.S.$1.3 billion on security measures for the 2004 Games in Athens, a budget which China expects to exceed.

Taking advice from the United Kingdom, which has one of the highest saturations of closed-circuit security cameras in the world, the Athens authorities also constructed a vast computer surveillance network capable of analyzing dozens of languages and facial recognition.

At least 45,000 security personnel were drafted into the "Shield of Hercules" security operation.

Original reporting in Cantonese by Ho Shan. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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