Eyes in the sky

Consumers showing more interest in data privacy


Passengers were not amused

In March this year Baidu’s founder Robin Li claimed that the Chinese are not “overly concerned about data security”. He went on to say that Chinese are ready to trade their privacy for “convenience, safety or efficiency”.

Much that has happened since then suggests that the Chinese want greater protection for their personal data, however.

The latest case concerns Umetrip, a flight-tracking app created by the state-owned enterprise Travel Sky. The app added a new function this month that allows passengers to see the details of other travellers when buying tickets. Umetrip said the feature is to facilitate conversation between passengers and make travel less boring (perhaps an inadvertent acknowledgement of China’s notorious flight delays). The new function included a “chat” option so that users could exchange messages.

But the new function also reveals other passengers’ previous travel records and seating preferences, such as booking aisle or window seats. An online map of the cabin allowed users to click on seat numbers and see that person’s details – as long as they were also one of Umetrip’s 30 million users.

In defence of its social media-style update, Umetrip said the service would offer passengers a non-confrontational way to negotiate things like seat swaps.

But Umetrip users didn’t see it in the same positive light. A popular WeChat article published earlier this month accused Travel Sky of “giving your private data to strangers”, for instance, with the author describing how he had used the app to discover that one of his fellow passengers, “a Mr Xu”, came from Beijing and that he usually booked aisle seats while flying on Air China.

“It’s uncomfortable since it feels like someone is watching you,” he complained. The company has denied the new function infringes privacy by saying the details on Umetrip can be edited by passengers to disguise their true identity.

That seemed to be missing the point and later Umetrip changed the default settings so that users had to opt into the “social function”, not out of it as they had to before.

“The core purpose of this function is to explore possible new services and to fulfill the need of online customers that were not fulfilled before,” it said in another statement that did little to address user concerns.

It is not the first time that an ‘innovation’ has raised privacy worries. In December last year Qihoo 360 had to shut down its livestreaming site Shuidi Zhibo after it became apparent that anyone could watch footage from Qihoo security cameras at schools, shops and restaurants (we first wrote about the site in WiC383, noting that some of the most popular feeds were of massage parlours and underwear shops).

In another questionable development, children at a school in Guizhou this month were required to make voice recordings for a technology company building voice recognition products. Their parents were not informed they would be recorded and the families weren’t paid.

In another case that provoked public ire earlier this year, an artist in Wuhan bought the personal details of 340,000 people and turned them into an exhibition highlighting the ease of trading private data (in a classy touch, he invited all of them to come and see his exhibit; see WiC405).

There are signs that companies are starting to take customer privacy more seriously, partly because the government issued more onerous new regulations in March. The two main food delivery services Ele.me and Meituan-Dianping are upgrading their apps to mask the contact details of the customers ordering the food, for instance. Delivery couriers will be able to call them, but actual phone numbers will be withheld.

“The appropriate collection and use of personal information is a basis for the development of the digital economy, but building trust is equally important, which means that users have the right to decide whether to transfer their personal information or not, and the companies have an obligation to respect the wishes of users and protect their privacy,” the People’s Daily insisted this week.

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