GPS technology has become such a ubiquitous part of our daily lives that most people don’t even think about how its used. The fact that you can use your smartphone to get turn-by-turn directions between any two points, or the ability to be able to remotely track your vehicle in the event that it’s stolen, are features that are so convenient and valuable that many don’t think twice about the potential privacy implications that come along with it.

Residents of Xinjiang in China are certainly considering those implications very carefully, however, especially after February. The crime and general violence problem in Xinjiang has gotten so bad that security officials in the area have taken the unprecedented step of ordering all residents to install GPS tracking devices into their cars so that local law enforcement can keep essentially constant tabs on their activities. If an owner chooses not to comply with the order, they will be denied gasoline for that same vehicle – essentially rendering it useless.

China and GPS: The Situation

Xinjiang, a region located on the border between China and the central part of Asia, has had a violence problem for quite some time. Consistent instances of deadly violence have become a way of life, much to the chagrin of the people who actually live there. Experts say that this is due largely to Islamist extremists, as well as ethnic friction between Han Chinese migrants and members of the Muslim Uighur minority who inhabit Xinjiang.

Everyone knew that something had to be done, but few could have anticipated a move as far-reaching as this one. Loulan News, in a post to the Bayingolin government’s propaganda office website, said that the GPS trackers were intended to “help guarantee social security and safety in the area, as well as promote social stability and harmony.” The move was motivated in part by the fact that cars have been a frequent tool used in terrorism incidents around the world. Not only are they one of the primary ways that guns and other weapons are transported across the country, but many have often been used as weapons themselves. Officials say that the move to install GPS trackers is meant to curb all of these activities, hopefully returning Xinjiang to the peaceful state it once knew.

China’s Action and the Court of Public Opinion

Terrorism experts have a lot to say about this move and what it means in terms of privacy. James Leibold, an expert from La Trobe university in Australia, says that he believes the action was motivated in part by the fact that GPS tracking is a much more reliable, much cheaper option than installing tens of thousands of security cameras across Xinjiang. He indicated that it was just one of the many investments in surveillance that the government has made over the last several years.

In terms of what it means for citizens, he indicated that it will likely push resentment further underground – stopping some violent events, while strengthening the will and motivation to commit others.

The Shape of Things to Come

The GPS order, which began on February 20 and continues to June 30, affects all private, secondhand and government vehicles. Additionally, large vehicles like construction equipment and lorries will also have to comply or they’ll face the same gas-related restrictions. Interestingly, people can’t just use any brand of consumer-grade GPS to remain in compliance. They MUST use a specially designed Beidou satellite navigation system that was made in China.

The project is currently in the pilot stages and for the time being only affects the Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture of Xinjiang. If it is successful – which everyone involves predicts that it will be – it is expected to roll out across all of Xinjiang in the not-too-distant future. If it is just as successful once it expands to that scope, there is no telling how much larger the program will get in the next few years.