If you're in Beijing for the Olympics kick starting this weekend, don't be spilling any beans (state secrets or otherwise) in your cab back to the hotel, because you're being listened to. As the WSJ is reporting, on your taxi's dash is a microphone that can be activated remotely, at any time and without the driver's knowledge, for a live listen into any one of Beijing's estimated 70,000 cabs. And then, if the folks on the other end don't like what they hear, they can take things even further.
The GPS-equipped devices also allow for remote disabling by "cutting off the oil or electric supply," effectively shutting down the engine and keeping it from being restarted. Yikes.
Beijing police tow the general "it's for the driver's safety" line:
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."
As the State Department has warned, you can expect to be monitored in just about every other place, public or private. It's doubtful that every cab is being recorded at all times, but the tech is there if necessary. Comforting.
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 centres 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.
Read more pan-Gawker coverage of the 2008 Olympic Games.