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Is Your New Car a Threat to National Security?


During the Cold War, both sides of the Iron Curtain addressed the issue of expanding aerial surveillance capabilities by signing the Open Skies Treaty — opting to provide clear rules on how and when NATO and Warsaw Pact countries could surveil each other from the air, and even regulate the flight of those surveillance missions paths, rather than trying to block them outright.

Consumer vehicles are just a new addition to the national security equation. But due to a globalized economy and modern product development, they may be by far the toughest challenges.

For now, Tesla is arguably the most connected and widely used car of the new generation. Not only do they collect vast amounts of data about drivers—from call logs to in-car browser histories to average speed and route histories—but their outward-facing sensors and cameras can relay a wealth of information about the world around them.

David Colombo, a 19-year-old German programmer, demonstrated earlier this year that it is not only possible but fairly easy to access Tesla users’ extremely sensitive data. Using a third-party app that could access Tesla’s API, Colombo tapped into the systems of two dozen Teslas around the world, controlling their locks, windows and audio systems, and downloading a ton of information.

“I was able to see a ton of data. Including where the Tesla has been, where it’s charging, current location, where it’s usually parked, driving time, travel speed, navigation requests, software update history, and even weather history around the Tesla And more,” Colombo wrote in an article published in January detailing his exploits.

While the specific vulnerability Colombo exploited has been patched, his hack shows a huge flaw at the heart of these smart vehicles: Sharing data isn’t a bug; it’s a feature.

The amount of data Tesla collects and uses is just the tip of the iceberg. We haven’t seen fully autonomous cars or much-vaunted “smart cities” that see 5G-enabled roads and traffic lights.

In the near future, cars will not only collect information on drivers and passengers, but also on vehicles, pedestrians, and surrounding cities. Some of this data is necessary for the car to function properly – reducing collisions, better planning routes and improving the vehicle itself.

“The US and Europe have been driving,” said Tu Le, managing director of Sino Auto Insights. The U.S., Canada and Europe may continue to lead the world in producing traditional cars, but that lead won’t last long. Whether it’s cobalt mining, lithium battery innovation, 5G technology or big data analytics, China is several steps ahead of its Western rivals, Le said.

“All these seemingly unrelated things come together in this smart electric vehicle,” Le said.

Of course, not all of Beijing’s successes are honest. Chinese nationals are accused of stealing intellectual property from American companies to support China’s growing industry. Such espionage does help, Le said, but it’s not the main reason for the explosive growth of Beijing’s auto industry.

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