Is your new car a threat to national security?

“I was able to see a large amount of data. Including where the Tesla has been, where it was charged, current location, where it usually parks, while driving, the speed of the rides, the navigation requests, history of software updates, even a history of the weather around the Tesla and all that but much more,” Colombo wrote in a Medium post published in January detailing his exploits.

While the specific vulnerabilities that Colombo took advantage of have been patched, his hack reveals a huge flaw at the core of these smart vehicles: data sharing isn’t a bug; it’s a function.

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 much-vaunted ‘smart cities’, which could see 5G roads and traffic lights.

In the near future, cars will collect information not only about their driver and passengers, but also about the vehicles, pedestrians and the city around them. Some of that data is needed for the car to function properly — to reduce collisions, plan routes better and improve the vehicles themselves.

“The United States and Europe have been sleeping behind the wheel,” said Tu Le, director of Sino Auto Insights. The US, Canada and Europe may remain the world leaders in producing traditional vehicles, but that lead won’t last long. Whether it’s cobalt mining, lithium battery innovation, 5G technology or large-scale data analytics, China has been several steps ahead of its Western competitors.

“All those seemingly unrelated things come together in this smart EV,” says Le.

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

For example, China’s ability to handle dazzling amounts of data 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, and its extensive online surveillance system adds to the dystopian social credit score. “One country is used to managing terabytes of data every day,” Le says — and when it comes to the auto industry, it’s not the United States.

And that data isn’t just Chinese. Huge investments from Beijing bring its ‘smart city’ brand to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; Venezuela; and countries across Africa. Chinese pilot projects for autonomous vehicles like are even underway in California.

China has learned that taking into account a large difference in weather, people and technology, various data improves algorithms. If China gets better at exploiting that data, it may need less of it. So even anonymized, general data passed down from a fleet of China-made cars in North America can reveal individual patterns and habits, but also paint a complex picture of an entire neighborhood or city — be it the daily routine of an urban military base or the scheme of a powerful minister. By banning Teslas from certain areas, China already appears to be controlling that threat domestically.

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