Didi Chuxing, China’s largest ride-hailing company, is now recording in-car audio during passenger trips in an effort that it says will improve customer safety.
The company, most recently valued at $50 billion, began trialing the new feature on one of its platforms, Didi Hitch, on Saturday, which asks users for a one-time authorization to create a voice recording for the duration of their rides before they’re able to book a car. If they decline, the booking cannot be completed.
A message on the app says recording is done on the driver’s phone, and recordings will be uploaded to the company’s servers as an encrypted file only accessible by Didi or law-enforcement. According to the message, the recording will be used as evidence in dealing with complaints or bad reviews, and will be automatically deleted within seven days if a complaint is not filed.
In July, the app tested out an optional video recording function in 20 cities, which asked users if they wanted to be recorded when they entered into a vehicle equipped with a camera.
The company has also rolled out driver facial recognition software before each trip, limited late-night rides to drivers and passengers of the same sex, and announced it would temporarily be suspending late night services on the app from September 8 while the company evaluates risks and continues to make improvements.
The increased safety measures follow two high-profile murders that happened during Didi rides in the last several months.
Last month, a 20-year-old woman was allegedly raped and murdered by a driver after using the service in the eastern province of Zhejiang, and in May, a 21-year-old flight attendant raped and murdered in Zhengzhou by an unregistered driver who allegedly hijacked his father’s account.
Public records seen by the South China Morning Post indicate that the service had at least a dozen instances of sexual assault convictions involving drivers and passengers.
Some users have expressed concern that the new safety measures are an invasion of privacy.
“This is sacrificing privacy for safety,” one user wrote on popular microblogging platform Weibo, according to Sixth Tone. “Why can’t [Didi] let passengers make their own choice?”
“We can’t talk about work and life during a journey after this,” a Didi passenger told Global Times. “I feel that both the driver and passenger are being monitored.”
The new measures also raise wider concerns about surveillance of Chinese citizens as they go about their daily lives.
China has already announced plans for a mandatory “social credit system” to be rolled out by 2020, which ranks citizens behavior and “trustworthiness” by monitoring most things about people — from their spending habits, to their internet use, to traffic violations.
Good social credit can lead to preferential treatment when renting apartments, staying in hotels, or getting a job promotion. But a poor score could result in travel bans, lower internet speeds, limited job prospects, or even public shaming.
The methodology of how China cultivates the score remains foggy, though the country could be using widespread facial recognition technology, monitoring online messages, forcing citizens to download government-linked monitoring apps, and tracking citizens’ social media posts.
The credit system has been rolled out in dozens of cities across the country, and citizens are already witnessing the effects of state monitored surveillance from suspended university enrollment, to banned travel access.
Several popular apps have been found to record sensitive user data stored in their mobile devices, which could be used to track and monitor Chinese citizens, according to Hong Kong Free Press. And Chinese authorities have acknowledged they have accessed deleted conversations from the popular messaging app WeChat.
Still, when it comes to ensuring safety, users in Chinese citizens are among the most willing to sacrifice privacy for safety and convenience, according to a report by market research firms Experian and International Data Corporation.