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The handling of user data in China has become a delicate matter for foreign tech companies operating in the country. Apple’s move to store the data of its Chinese customers in servers managed by a Chinese state-owned cloud service has stoked controversy in the West over the years. A recent New York Times investigation found that the setup could give Beijing easy access to Apple’s user data in China, but Apple said it “never compromised the security” of its customers or their data.
Tesla, one of the few U.S. tech heavyweights that generate substantial revenues from China, is working out a similar data plan. The electric carmaker said it has established a data center in China to carry out the “localization of data storage,” with plans to add more data facilities in the future, the company announced through its account on microblogging platform Weibo. All data generated by Tesla vehicles sold in mainland China will be kept domestically.
Tesla is acting in response to new requirements drafted by the Chinese government to regulate how cameras- and sensors-enabled carmakers collect and utilize data. One of the requirements states that “personal or important data should be stored within the [Chinese] territory.”
It’s unclear what level of data access Chinese authorities have to Tesla’s Chinese customers. In the case of Apple, the phone maker said it controlled the keys that protect the data of its Chinese users.
Tesla recently fell out of favor with Chinese media and the public after a customer protested the carmaker’s faulted parts at an auto show in Shanghai, earning her widespread sympathy. Tesla also faces fierce competition from domestic rivals like Nio and Xpeng, which are investing heavily in world-class designs and autonomous driving technology.
The American firm clearly wants the government’s good graces in its second-largest market. It appeared a few days ago at an industry symposium along with Baidu, Alibaba, research institutions, and think tanks to discuss the new vehicle policy proposed by the country’s cybersecurity watchdog.
“Important data” generated by vehicles as defined by the Chinese internet regulator include traffic conditions in military and government compounds; surveying and mapping data beyond what the government discloses; status of electric charging grids; face, voice, and car plate information; and any data deemed as affecting national security or public interest.
The rules also urge car service providers not to track users by default, as well as inform users of the kinds of data being collected and the reasons as to why. If gathered, information should be anonymized and stored for only “a minimum period of time.”