Is your new car a national security threat?

“I was able to see a large amount of data. Including where the Tesla has been, where it charged, current location, where it usually parks, when it was driving, trip speeds, navigation requests, software update history, even a history weather around the Tesla and so on much more,” Colombo wrote in a January Medium post that detailed his exploits.

While the specific vulnerabilities that Colombo took advantage of have been patched, his hack demonstrates a huge flaw at the heart of these smart vehicles: data sharing is not a bug; it’s a feature.

The amount of data Tesla collects and uses is just the tip of the iceberg. We have yet to see fully autonomous vehicles or the vaunted “smart cities,” which could see 5G-enabled roads and traffic lights.

In the near future, cars will not only collect information about their driver and passengers, but also about vehicles, pedestrians and the city around them. Some of this data will be necessary for the proper functioning of the car, to reduce collisions, better plan routes and improve the vehicles themselves.

“The United States and Europe fell asleep at the wheel,” said Tu Le, general manager of Sino Auto Insights. The United States, Canada and Europe may continue to lead the world in the production of traditional vehicles, but this lead will not last long. Whether it’s cobalt mining, lithium battery innovation, 5G-enabled technology or big data analytics, Le says China is several steps ahead of its Western competitors.

“All of these seemingly unrelated things are converging on this smart electric vehicle,” says Le.

Of course, not all of Beijing’s successes came honestly. Chinese nationals have been accused of stealing intellectual property from American companies to support China’s growing industry. Le says that this kind of spying certainly helps, but it’s not the main reason for Beijing’s explosive growth in the automotive sector.

China’s ability to handle staggering volumes of data, for example, is well documented. Beijing’s facial recognition programs rely on a ubiquitous network of surveillance cameras, its proprietary GPS system enables real-time tracking of Xinjiang’s Muslim minority, its vast online surveillance system powers its dystopian social credit score. “One country is used to handling terabytes of data on a daily basis,” Le says, and, at least as far as the auto industry is concerned, that’s not the United States.

And this data is not only Chinese. Massive investment from Beijing brings its “smart city” brand to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; Venezuela; and African countries. Pilot projects of Chinese autonomous vehicles like Pony.ai are even on the roads of California.

China has learned that various data, taking into account a big difference in weather conditions, people and technologies, improves algorithms. If China gets better at using this data, it might need less of it. So even anonymous general data transmitted from a fleet of Chinese-made cars in North America could reveal individual patterns and habits, but also paint a complex picture of an entire neighborhood or city, whether whether it’s the daily routine of an urban military base or the schedule of a powerful minister. By banning Teslas from certain areas, China apparently already controls this threat domestically.

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