Self-driving Chinese cars are state-approved ‘rolling surveillance devices’: report

Balloons might not be the only Chinese technology spying in plain sight as a new report warned of state-approved “rolling surveillance devices.”

Considered a Manchurian Candidate in more ways than one, President Joe Biden and his administration have frequently fumbled matters concerning American security and the Chinese Communist Party. Be it land grabs near military bases, mixed messaging on the social media platform TikTok, or a mismanaged response to spy balloons traversing the nation, self-driving cars were readily included on the list of threats having turned the streets of California into “literally the wild, wild West…”

Monday, a report from Fortune analyzed data collected from the Department of Motor Vehicles and concluded that, since 2017, autonomous automobiles had logged over 1.8 million miles in the Golden State alone.

They further detailed that of the camera- and geospatial mapping-equipped fleets prowling the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose, seven of 35 companies approved to test self-driving capabilities in California were wholly or partly based in China, and some had garnered permission for testing in Arizona and Texas.

Apollo, AutoX, DiDi Research America, Pony.ai, and WeRide had all operated their cars in California over the course of 2023 without meaningful regulatory stopgaps to prevent American data from ending up in the hands of the Chinese government or the highest bidder.

“It is literally the wild, wild West here. There’s no one in charge,” said Craig Singleton, director of the China program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Fortune detailed, “The lack of safeguards raises concerns not just because of the vast amounts of data that autonomous cars collect in the ordinary course of their operations, but also because of the ability of roaming vehicles to surreptitiously collect other types of data.”

“The potential for such mischief was demonstrated back in 2010 when Google acknowledged that its manually driven Street View mapping cars had for years hoovered up private user data, including entire email communications and passwords, shared over unsecured Wi-Fi networks by residents in more than 30 countries (Google blamed the incident on a rogue employee),” recalled the report.

However, WeRide informed Fortune their vehicles “automatically [edit] videos to mask human faces and license plates, and that the original clips are immediately deleted after the changes are made.” They explained that “U.S. car data is stored and processed locally, and that it does not transfer data across borders.”

Meanwhile, China has maintained restrictions on American companies doing similar tests in the communist nation with Elon Musk’s Tesla reportedly passing the data security requirements in April.

That same month, automotive expert Mike Caudill suggested Americans should “absolutely be concerned” over technology in these vehicles.

“You’ve got your smartphone. Smartphones are now being integrated into vehicles. And so the problematic nature of that is the data,” he told Fox News Digital. “And the content is being shared between your phone and the vehicle itself. And obviously, when you’re talking about electric vehicles, they’re even more high-tech. They require more data. They require more communication.”

“And the question is, who’s receiving that data? Is it the CCP? Is that the government?” posited Caudill.

“In the defense domain,” Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Nadia Schadlow told Fortune, “understanding your terrain and the granularity of your terrain is critical. It’s a competition over who has full situational awareness over the battlefield.”

Editor’s Note: We have updated this story to include missing information supplied to Fortune by WeRide regarding their vehicles’ ability to edit personal information out of videos, and any information collected is not transferred across borders. Additionally, a previous version of this article’s headline used the phrase “mapping America” which has been changed due to the vehicles only being present in California. The California Department of Motor Vehicles permits and regulates the use of driverless vehicles on certain roads. For more information, click here. We apologize for the error. 

Kevin Haggerty

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