Charles Parton

Could China spy on us through our electric cars?

Credit: Getty images

Ulez currently may be Westminster’s favourite talking point, but sharper MPs and ministers are more concerned about the emissions from the front of your car than the back: data, lots and lots of it.  

Buried in the electronic control unit of every new electric car is a cellular internet of things module (CIM). The CIM is a vital component of the system which controls the sensors, cameras, audio, geolocation capability, engine and more. Connected to the internet like your mobile phone, it acts as the gateway for information to go in and out of a car. Manufacturers use that information to improve design and performance. They send back software improvements and updates. 

Soon, perhaps the only answer will be to issue ministers with bicycles

So why are ministers worried? Back in January, iNews reported that ‘officials had dismantled British government vehicles and swept them deliberately for Chinese tracking SIMs.’ It meant CIMs (the abbreviations are close and cause confusion). And they are not secretly placed, as alleged, but a necessary part of the car’s control unit. Nevertheless, they do egress data, and not just geolocation data. There were distressing reports earlier this year that Tesla engineers have shared film from cameras in people’s personal cars, including from inside Elon Musk’s garage, unbeknownst to their owners. 

Audio data can also be transmitted back. No wonder one senior government member assured me that the security services were ‘petrified’. How many ministers use their time in cars to discuss the next piece of urgent business? How can it be a good idea to allow the Chinese to know all the to-ings and fro-ings of the prime minister in real time (or even in the future, by analysing preparatory visits made by the PM’s security officers)? It is bad enough trusting Elon Musk with government information derived from the back seat of a car, but quite another allowing the Chinese Communist party (CCP) to get its hands on it.

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Written by
Charles Parton
Charles Parton is a former UK diplomat who spent 22 years working in China. He is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Council on Geostrategy.

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