Big Brother wants to be your new car's co-pilot

In the future, negotiating to buy a self-driving car will be more about the software than the hardware. In fact, if you buy the software, chances are the dealership will throw in the car for free. Sound far-fetched? Not so fast.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is the most sophisticated stealth fighter ever built. Besides being able to pull 9 G’s, the F-35 is described as “the most lethal, survivable and connected fighter aircraft ever built. More than a fighter jet, the F-35’s ability to collect, analyze and share data is a powerful force multiplier enhancing all airborne, surface and ground-based assets in the battlespace and enabling men and women in uniform to execute their mission and come home safe.”

Something as deadly and stealthy as the F-35 requires over 8 million lines of code to make it strike fear into our adversaries. Surely there is little that can rival the complexity of a stealth fighter. Unless you’re Facebook. To connect over 1.2 billion people on a daily basis takes a little over 60 million lines of code. Even that pales in comparison to what it takes to run a modern automobile.

At the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, Ford appeared to be more of a data and sensor company than a vehicle manufacturer. The thousands of sensors inside a modern Ford require over 150 million lines of code. Mix in Artificial Intelligence and computer vision for self-driving cars, and you have a recipe for chaos.

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Keen Security Lab, which is the cybersecurity research group of Chinese internet giant Tencent, recently published a report demonstrating how their researchers were able to hijack a Tesla Model S self-driving car and move it into the oncoming lane. It’s no coincidence Keen is a Chinese company, and even less of a coincidence Tesla is being targeted.

The watershed moment for cybersecurity in vehicles happened in 2015 when DARPA researchers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek wirelessly cut the brakes to a 2014 Jeep Cherokee being driven by a Wired magazine reporter, watching as the Jeep slid into a ditch. Jeep issued a recall for 1.4 million vehicles as a result.

Keen Security Lab, a Chinese group who has hacked Tesla and BMW vehicles, portrays their work as “ethical hacking research.” This statement is extremely difficult to reconcile, since all companies in China are expected to share their research and technology with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) under a concept called “civil-military fusion.” Bob Work, the former Deputy Secretary of Defense, has warned of this repeatedly.

The results from the Keen group research feeds directly into China’s global ambition of dominating electric and autonomous vehicles. According to recent data, China buys one out of every two electric vehicles sold globally. And the talent pool for driverless vehicles isn’t in Shanghai or Beijing. It’s in Silicon Valley.

Several Chinese startups have recognized the real talent is still in the United States. They are setting up shop near Apple, Google, Tesla and others and using credits from their Communist government to poach top engineers. To achieve the kind of dominance in Artificial Intelligence envisioned by President Xi, “Made in China 2025” has been the key strategy for achieving global leadership. Until last March.

The slogan ‘Made in China 2025’ appears to have been dropped in name only. The intent is still there, and China will continue to aggressively use subsidies, credits, civil-military fusion, espionage, intellectual property theft and academia against us.

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To make matters worse, China continues to openly follow their three ‘R’ strategy: ‘Rob’ the technology, ‘Replicate’ it in China, and ‘Replace’ current competitors whose technology was stolen in the first place. One large scale example was Didi Chuxing, a ride-hailing service that competes with Uber. Didi Chuxing does most of the driverless research in America, and used that knowledge to drive Uber out of the China market.

There’s another big reason China wants to dominate AI and driverless vehicles, and that’s 5G. The next generation of wireless connectivity has arrived, with Verizon beating South Korea in launching the next generation networks. The 5G network is more than just about speed, but that is a consideration. The advantages 5G brings will have significant impact in the Internet of Things (IoT), connected and driverless vehicles.

Connected cars are estimated to send 25 gigabytes of data — per hour — to the cloud. Sending that amount isn’t going to be possible on current wireless networks. Which is why Huawei is positioning to deploy as much of their 5G networking gear as possible around the world. Imagine the thousands of sensors per vehicle, and the millions of connected vehicles per country, sending data back over software and hardware owned by Chinese companies who fully participate in civil-military fusion.

If China, and Chinese companies, control that much of the market, they will also get to set the standards. And that means China will have visibility into the data flowing across the networks. That’s a problem for Rob Spaulding, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

"It’s going to be far more pervasive in terms of what data aggregators know about you and how they can influence your lives,” says Spaulding. “Today it’s Amazon, Google, Facebook. Tomorrow it’s Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, and the Chinese communist party."

Janice Stein, political science professor at the University of Toronto, was more pragmatic. "This isn’t about virtue. For most of the world, the question is who do you want to spy on you?"

I, for one, want to make sure it’s not China.

Morgan Wright is an expert on cybersecurity strategy, cyberterrorism, identity theft and privacy. He previously worked as a senior advisor in the U.S. State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program and as senior law enforcement advisor for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Follow him on Twitter @morganwright_us.