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If You're a Foreigner Using GPS in China, You Could Be a Spy

"Illegal mapping" -- with the use of "devices with ultra high sensitivity" -- is Beijing's charge against the world's largest soft drink maker.
March 14, 2013, 9:05pm

This story has been updated.

Like many foreign companies in China, Coca Cola is no stranger to bad PR. A year ago, the company admitted that its Shanxi bottling companies had suffered from chlorine contamination; in November, after one of its executive’s laptops was compromised by a Chinese hacking crew, the company received a rejection letter from the government over its $2.4-billion bid for Chinese juice-maker Huiyuan, a move widely seen as a sign of China's distaste for foreign competition.


But all that pales in comparison with espionage. Now "illegal mapping" -- with the use of "devices with ultra high sensitivity" -- is Beijing's charge against the world's largest soft drink maker.

On its face, the case, which is being handled by the National Administration of Surveying, Mapping and Geoinformation and the Ministry of State Security, looks like yet another example of China's aggressive sensitivity about its maps. Geographic data has serious national security implications, says Beijing, and political implications too. Because its borders are heavily contested (by Japan, by India, by Pakistan, by Tibetans), China frowns upon foreigners wielding sophisticated equipment that might have to do with surveying.

Update: According to a report by NBC, Gong Yinyong, a spokesman for NASMG, "stressed it is still too early to conclude that Coco-Cola has violated Chinese law, and said the investigation was being handled by its Yunnan bureau." Another officer who spoke anonymously confirmed that the agency has been tougher on foreigners and foreign companies in recent years when it comes to mapping issues.

China's sensitivities are so strong that, as Mara Hvistendahl writes in a recent article in Science, it is effectively illegal for a foreigner to operate a GPS device in China. An emphasis on effectively: the rule is practically unenforceable, and most foreigners go about their days in China using GPS on their phones, like everyone else does. Nevertheless, some manufacturers warn customers against using geo-tagging equipment in China; a note included with the Leica V-LUX 20 camera, which has a GPS feature, indicated that the feature may not work in China. A representative later clarified that the feature would work, but urged visitors to the country to turn off GPS on their devices, or face arrests or fines.


Li Pengde, deputy director of the administration, said during a radio interview on Tuesday that the Coca Cola case was only one of 21 similar cases involving companies using GPS devices in Yunnan to "illegally obtain classified information."

"Some people are profiting from collecting information, including providing it to some foreign intelligence agencies," he said, without naming Coke by name. Geographical data could be used by guided missiles to strike key military facilities. "Mapping information can be used by enemies," he said, "so it must be restricted." He also noted that when the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed by the US in 1999—an accident that left a long-lasting mark on China-US relations—Washington blamed it on an inaccurate map.

A satellite map of Coca Cola's bottling plant in Kunming, Yunnan province, via Google Maps

But from a technical level, China's concern over GPS here appears to be overblown: anyone determined to attack China with a missile is already likely to have the tools to accurately target it, said Todd Humphreys, who runs the University of Texas's Radionavigation Lab.

"China believes that high-precision maps of its country are a security threat, and they are -- high-precision maps allow high-precision attacks," Humphreys wrote by email. "The trouble for China (and the US and all countries mapped by Google Earth) is that high-enough-precision (3m-level) maps already exist due to satellite imagery. So there's no sense in criminalizing cm-level precision, at least, no sense that I can see."


Yunnan province, where some of Coca Cola's employees were caught using hand-held GPS devices to collect "sensitive geographic information," abuts Vietnam, Laos, and Burma, which, along with Thailand, make up the "Golden Triangle" where much of the world's opium trade begins. Last week, China's foreign minister pointed to [territorial disputes]( ) to argue that "the complexities in China's neighboring environment have increased."

Disputed borders between China, India, and Pakistan. China's Yunnan province lies at the very southeastern edge of the map, next to Myanmar (Burma). (Map by the Economist.)

Coca-Cola, which says it is "co-operating fully" with the investigation, says the GPS its employees have used were "digital map and customer logistic systems commercially available in China," used to improve fuel efficiency and customer service. That's a common practice among many Western companies, as a way of improving efficiency and better planning, even if that sounds suspiciously akin to Google's explanation last year for why it was collecting IP addresses with its Street View cars. (This week Google admitted that the program had violated individuals' privacy in a case brought by 38 American states, and agreed to pay $7 million in fines.)

“The trouble for China (and the US and all countries mapped by Google Earth) is that high-enough-precision maps already exist due to satellite imagery. So there's no sense in criminalizing cm-level precision."

The government has another safeguard in any case: digital maps must be officially licensed, and are held under tight control by Beijing, which has ensured that Google Maps is often "off" from GPS coordinates by 50-500m (erroneous "trap streets" are used by cartographers around the world as proof of possible theft). Still, “It’s better for [your] safety not to turn on the GPS function [on your cellphone],” a State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping official told the South China Morning Post in 2009.

Han Qixiang, director of the administration's law enforcement department, claimed that Coca-Cola was doing more than just improving its supply chain, using mapping technology so sophisticated that the administration could not adequately analyze the company's system.

The Coke accusations also look like overreaction at a time of simmering tensions between the U.S. and China over all sorts of sensitive data. On Monday, the White House called on Beijing to take "serious steps" to stop extensive hacking of US companies and start negotiating international rules for proper online behavior. The same day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chuying said that "China is willing, on the basis of the principles of mutual respect and mutual trust, to have constructive dialogue and cooperation on this issue with the international community, including the United States, to maintain the security, openness, and peace of the Internet." But she also noted that two major Chinese military websites were attacked more than 140,000 times per month over the past year, with about two-thirds of the attacks coming from the US.

In 2007, the government began ramping up its efforts to enforce its laws against "illegal mapping" and other notoriously vague and arbitrary violations of state secrets. In 2011, the government [sentenced geologist Xue Feng]( . ), a naturalized American citizen of Chinese birth, to three years in prison for allegedly violating state secrets while working for IHS Energy (it should be noted that Xue was held for three years before his trial, and, his family says, tortured).

According to Sohu, China's surveying administration investigated and handled nearly 40 cases of "foreign illegal surveying and mapping" since 2006. An amendment proposed last year to the national law on surveying would impose fines and jail time for makers of maps that “fail to demonstrate China’s complete territory.” Adding to the intrigue, perhaps, is China's interest in competiting with standard GPS technology: in December, the government made available for commercial use a military alternative to GPS that it hopes will reach 70 and 80 percent of Chinese marketshare by 2020, and eventually reach markets across the globe.

Top photo via Flickr / faungg