Finding your way with Chinese GPS

Nature reports today that the Chinese authorities are cracking down on foreign researchers doing environmental monitoring in China. In short - you do it with permission, with a Chinese partner and to the benefit of the Chinese state, or you don't do it at all.

Nature reports today that the Chinese authorities are cracking down on foreign researchers doing environmental monitoring in China. In short - you do it with permission, with a Chinese partner and to the benefit of the Chinese state, or you don't do it at all. The reason given is that people have been selectively publishing data that puts China in a deliberately bad light.

I was expecting something like this. A few weeks ago, I chanced upon an article in a Chinese publication - I was reading about Huawei via Google's translator, and saw an odd link. As far as I could make out, the article was a warning to everyone to be on the look out for subversives and spies using GPS to illicitly map parts of the Chinese heartlands, with the intention of preparing for an invasion. As such, GPS was being cast as a dangerous system whose users were going to meet with short shrift if discovered: the article was for internal consumption, but the message was clear even through the idiomatic haze of machine translation.

And indeed, the Nature piece says that people using GPS for geological surveying have been having their kit confiscated, even when the surveys are for matters that cannot possibly have a bearing on the proprieties or security of the Chinese state.

Which raises some practical problems. With GPS chip prices so low and falling, the technology is finding its way into everything. It's common in phones, it's becoming embedded in timekeeping and security devices, and I've even seen it in two-way radio mikes to bung location information over the airwaves. And China itself is making millions of GPS-enabled devices in handsets and the rest.

So, when you get off the plane at Beijing, what do you do with your new Nokia? Do you hope it isn't confiscated? Do you leave it at home and take something duller along? Do you just never dare to use it to find your way back to the hotel? And how about those phones which triangulate their position from the mobile phone networks, without aid of GPS at all? (Probably safe there - I doubt the Chinese operators are publishing the base station data that makes that possible.)

I'm going to write to the PRC Embassy and ask for guidelines - but not before I get my visa for IDF in Shanghai in April. And II'll be taking a very ordinary phone and leaving my little Garmin safely in the desk drawer.

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