Too easy to find

Maps app faces controversy


Has Granny made it to her square-dancing class? Is my boyfriend really working late at the office? These are two of the queries that the Amap app can now help to resolve, following the launch of its new tracking service. Since July 14 Amap – known as Gaode in Chinese and controlled by Alibaba – has allowed groups of up to 12 users to share live location information with one other. It says the function was launched so that families could track the whereabouts of children or elderly parents. But it clearly didn’t expect to spark a heated discussion about privacy.

“The Cyber Information Security Law stipulates that the collection and use of personal information by network operators shall follow the principles of lawfulness, fairness and necessity, and shall not collect personal information irrelevant to the services they provide. In this way is the operation of the ‘family map’ beyond the scope of a mapping app?” questioned one commentary in the Southern Daily.

The debate about data privacy has deepened since Baidu CEO Robin Li claimed two years ago that consumers in China were willing to sacrifice their online anonymity in order to enjoy quicker, more personalised services (see WiC415).

Since then there has been controversy every time that local governments suggest the addition of more personal data to the social credit rating system or when, as happened again last week, large troves of personal data are hacked or stolen.

While other platforms, including Google Maps, allow users to share their live location for short periods, Amap allows the participants to track one another until someone actively requests to be withdrawn from the group. Critics say it would be very easy to forget that you had agreed to be monitored and that this could lead to you being watched for months without your knowledge.

Some were worried that companies could pressure employees to sign up for the service, while others reported that their girlfriends or boyfriends were already putting them under pressure to participate.

“If I join my every movement will be monitored. But if I say no, my girlfriend will wonder what I have to hide,” complained one man quoted by

The dangers of the information falling into unauthorised hands was also discussed, especially in light of a story in Xinhua last week highlighting how it was possible to buy huge caches of facial recognition data on the Taobao e-commerce site.

The records comprised high-quality images and personal information such as ID card numbers and even bank account details.

Netizens were shocked to discover that the stolen data could also be used to access apps relying on facial recognition technology. In some cases, the files have been animated with ‘deep fake’ technology that tricks third-party apps into recognising a blink or a smile – a security feature that is supposed to prevent still images being used to hack into accounts. “If facial information actually matches other identity information, it may be used by criminals to take over someone’s social media accounts or steal their money,” Xinhua warned.

With Amap, the anxiety about how the location data would be used seemed to separate along generational lines. People over 30 – who might have elderly parents and young kids – liked the family map feature, saying that it allowed them to check in on their loved ones. But the under-30s seemed a lot more cautious about the benefits. They didn’t want to be tracked themselves and argued that there were other ways to follow what younger children and senior citizens were doing. “For these people tracker bracelets are better,” one netizen claimed.

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