The Wall Street Journal
August 6, 2008
Tiny Microphones Can Be Activated By Remote Control
BEIJING — Tens of thousands of taxi drivers in Beijing have a tool that could become part of China’s all-out security campaign for the Olympic Games. Their vehicles have microphones — installed ostensibly for driver safety — that can be used to listen to passengers remotely.
The tiny listening devices, which are connected to a global positioning system able to track a cab’s location by satellite, have been installed in almost all of the city’s 70,000 taxis over the past three years, taxi drivers and industry officials say.
As with digital cameras used in cities such as London, Sydney or New York, the stated purpose of the microphones is to protect the driver. But whereas the devices in other countries can only record images, those devices in Beijing taxis can be remotely activated without the driver’s knowledge to eavesdrop on passengers, according to drivers and Yaxon Networks Co., a Chinese company that makes some of the systems used in Beijing. The machines can even remotely shut off engines.
Whether these microphones are used to spy on riders is unclear. Asked if police could listen in on conversations in taxis, a Beijing police official declined to comment, saying that such matters were “confidential” and that they were “not supposed to release such details to the public.”
China has launched a massive operation to protect the Games. Monday’s deadly attack in Xinjiang on a police station underscored Beijing’s worries that terrorists will attack the Olympics. The government says it has deployed about 110,000 police, troops and volunteers in Beijing to ensure security.
But Chinese authorities are also determined to thwart protesters or human-rights activists who might try to embarrass the government. Taxi drivers have been told to watch for suspicious behavior and odd packages. Security experts say there is little likelihood that all conversations in taxis are monitored. But the presence of microphones in a place most would consider private is a reminder that there are many ways for Chinese authorities to monitor people.
The U.S. State Department has warned visitors to the Olympics that no place is safe from eavesdropping. “All visitors should be aware that they have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public or private locations,” the department said on March 20.
The State Department notice explains that all hotel rooms and offices “are considered to be subject to on-site or remote technical monitoring at all times. Hotel rooms, residences and offices may be accessed at any time without the occupant’s consent or knowledge.”
Security experts say that all phones in China can be tapped, including cellphones, which send out signals that can be used to track location. That capability can be crippled only by removing the battery. Ahead of the Games, Beijing has also been blanketed by surveillance video cameras, while neighborhood committees (residents’ representatives to the government) have also been called in for the effort.
Similar GPS systems with microphones have been rolled out in other parts of China, where taxi drivers have been recruited in the broader security effort.
In the northeastern city of Shenyang, site for some Olympic soccer matches, police have recruited 38,000 taxi drivers as “intelligence agents,” according to China’s Xinhua news agency. Their cooperation is important because drivers travel widely and meet many people, said Liu Juntao, an official with Shenyang’s transportation department, according to Xinhua. Police there are offering citizens a reward of 500,000 yuan, or roughly $73,000, for valid tips about any potential terror plots or planned sabotage by dissidents.
Several Beijing taxi companies declined to comment on the security aspect but said that the GPS helps track taxis and that the microphones will be used for translating services. About a dozen taxi drivers said the microphones were installed about three years ago, when newer cabs were built without protective metal cages around the drivers. Cabbies can turn on the system and alert their dispatch centers by touching a discreet button near the steering wheel.
Activists say they are concerned about the ability to listen to conversations with the devices, which appear unique to China. “This seems to suggest an effort by the police or other security forces to eavesdrop on conversations of passengers, rather than for the immediate safety and security of the taxi driver,” said Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch.
One Beijing taxi driver said he would be uncomfortable if the device in his vehicle could snap pictures of the riders. “I wouldn’t want to take a photo of my passengers without their knowledge,” said the driver, wearing the new shirt and tie the drivers are required to don during the Olympics. “Wouldn’t that violate their human rights?”
Yaxon Networks, based in Xiamen in Fujian province, says on its Web site that its devices allow the police or a service center to “judge if the driver is in danger” through remote surveillance or wiretapping. If it is necessary, the service center can immobilize a taxi remotely by “cutting off the oil or electric supply,” the company adds.
As part of its security mobilization, China’s military has deployed 34,000 soldiers in Beijing and other cities hosting Olympic events, Senior Col. Tian Yixiang, a senior official at the Olympic security command center told reporters Friday. The military says it has deployed antiaircraft missiles near Games venues and has dedicated 74 jets, 47 helicopters and 33 ships to Olympic security duties.
“Generally speaking, Chinese strengths really lie in pre-empting threats rather than in crisis management or emergency response in the event that there really are any incidents,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, an expert on Chinese security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a private Washington think tank. She mentioned China’s use of the microphones in taxis at a news conference in Washington in advance of President George W. Bush’s arrival in Beijing on Thursday.
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