Industry > Mess

Is China placing secret tracking devices in its cars?

Intelligence officers in the UK have found them in government vehicles

Chinese cars have been found to be tracking British officials recently. GRAPHIC BY SAM SURLA

The quality of cars made in China has gotten a lot better in recent years, as Chinese firms have not only improved their own standards but also taken over many established manufacturers. This fact, combined with very attractive price points, has led to a rise in demand for cars from the People’s Republic, both in the country’s local market and abroad.

At least, some foreign buyers might be getting more than they bargained for, though. According to a report by a British news outlet, intelligence officials in the UK have found tracking devices hidden in government vehicles that were made in China.

The report by inews quotes a number of unnamed intelligence officials, and makes for alarming reading. Agents took apart a number of official and diplomatic vehicles used by the British government amid growing concerns over spyware, and seemingly discovered at least one tracking device in the process.

The geolocating device was fitted with a SIM card and was hidden inside a sealed component that was installed by the manufacturer in China, according to the report. This would indicate a rather sophisticated operation, rather than just someone slapping a box onto the car with a magnet as you see in the movies.

Allegedly, the ECUs fitted in these cars have these tracking SIMs, and manufacturers cannot check them due to warranty agreements. PHOTO FROM NVIDIA

Reports from inews say that the cars were stripped down to the last nut and bolt in a deliberate search for Chinese tracking SIMs as part of increased efforts against espionage from hostile states, and that the vehicles in question were used to transport diplomats and ministers. It would now be easy to accuse the manufacturers of being in cahoots with whoever was trying to spy on the Brits, but it seems even the carmakers themselves may have been unaware this was going on.

The report continues to state that these tracking devices were seemingly hidden in sealed parts sourced from Chinese suppliers, and it specifically talks about electronic control units (ECUs).

It is claimed that tracking SIMs are embedded in ECUs before the parts are sent to manufacturers, which install them in their cars without opening them due to various warranty and commercial agreements. The devices are then capable of tracking the location and the movements of the vehicles for long periods of time.

Needless to say, Chinese officials were not amused about the news, and dismissed the story and its revelations outright. But it does make you wonder how concerned intelligence resources really are if they tell the press about something like this.

Maybe it’s time government officials in the Philippines did the same thing, and took a close look at the cars that are being used to ferry important government personnel around. While the report from the UK didn’t mention any specific manufacturer, it shouldn’t take long to work out what cars might be most at risk of having been tampered with. We hope nothing will be found, but you can’t be too careful these days.

Frank Schuengel

Frank is a German e-commerce executive who loves his wife, a Filipina, so much he decided to base himself in Manila. He has interesting thoughts on Philippine motoring. He writes the aptly named ‘Frankly’ column.