Chinese officials say an online database to be launched soon in Beijing will help government agencies serve residents better.
Skeptics, however, see it as a tool for officials to keep tabs on residents and their movements.
The new database – believed to be the first of its kind in China – provides personal and other information about a resident in a unique map format.
A click of the mouse on the electronic map brings up information such as the type and structure of a piece of property as well as personal details, including an occupant's name, hometown, gender and occupation.
For rented property, details of the landlord and tenants, who may include migrant workers and foreigners, can be retrieved.
Not unexpectedly, the database has triggered privacy and security concerns, despite official assurances that the data will be used only by government departments.
At a briefing last week, the population management department of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau (PSB) gave the assurance that the database is aimed at improving government efficiency and raising service standards.
“The database will help different government bodies to better allocate resources,” said department spokesman Guan Xihua.
Education officials can allocate more resources, in the form of bursaries for instance, to districts where pupils are from low- income families, he said.
Similarly, the transport and medical sectors can tailor and improve their services according to the profile and population density of a certain area, said Guan.
Work on the electronic map began last November.
Some 88 percent of Beijing's 20 million residents have already been matched with residential addresses.
Police officers made house visits to collect information for the database, which now has a total of 13.2 million pieces of housing data and 20.7 million pieces of personal information covering not just local residents but also migrant workers and foreigners.
Seeking to allay privacy and security concerns, the spokesman assured residents that the map will be accessed only by government departments and that the PSB will step up its security.
Some residents like Chen Shufeng are not convinced.
“Who knows whether my information will be sold to companies,” said Chen, 29, who works in a property firm.
“Also, there is the threat of hacking. I am not really assured by the government's pledge to protect my personal information.”
Others like engineer Tang Qingning, 39, are not too worried about security but wonder why there should be such a database.
“These days, our personal details are more easily available than we think. I often get calls from telemarketers,” he told The Straits Times. “I don't see the need to develop a map database.”
Internet experts say the authorities would have already collected such information about the population – a common practice in many countries.
But an electronic map that presents the data in a clearer format is more likely to attract hackers or criminals, they add.
To skeptics, the new database can serve another purpose: to enable the government to avert potential social unrest by monitoring and tracking the movements of certain people.
Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Internet and new media expert Wei Wuhui believes its key purpose is to maintain social stability, particularly ahead of the Chinese Communist Party's 18th national congress this year.
“The purpose of improving government efficiency is valid, but it is not as strong as the need to maintain social stability,” he said.
“By improving their ability to track the population on a micro-level, the authorities can pre-empt potential unrest by looking out for unusual signs such as people gathering at one location.”
However, Jiang Qiping, chief editor of China Internet Weekly, called such talk far-fetched, saying he believes the database's primary purpose is to improve public service.
“Of course, there are risks of it falling prey to criminals or hackers. The authorities will have to protect the database and use it legally,” he said.
“But such risks should not stop us from developing new things that can improve people's life,” he added.