Investigation Reveals the Presence of Secret Devices in Government Vehicles

18-01-2023 | By Robin Mitchell

Recently, hidden Chinese devices have been found inside vehicles used by the government, which continues to demonstrate the dangers posed by foreign manufacturing. What challenges does Chinese hardware present, what exactly was found, and what does this mean for the future of technology sourced abroad?

Why is Chinese hardware potentially problematic?

It is well known across the world that products manufactured by China carry an element of risk. For one, China is rife with underground markets that recycle and resell components, meaning improperly sourced parts can be from previous devices. This underground market is also well known for manufacturing counterfeit parts, which can lead to devices that do not perform as expected. In fact, there are some cases where blank chips (which have no die) are marked with an expensive part number, pushed to customers, and the suppliers of those parts disappear (but this is rare). But while these manufacturing challenges can be easily addressed by only using authorised companies, the threat of hidden spying hardware in parts manufactured in China is starting to present significant challenges to the West.

While it is true that most countries in the world are involved in spying (the US is arguably the most active country in this), the challenge presented by China is that it is responsible for a significant proportion of the world’s manufacturing. Even products that claim to be made in the UK will undoubtedly use China at some point. For example, the Raspberry Pi is manufactured in the UK, but modules, chips, and other parts will likely be sourced from China. Thus, it is this position in the manufacturing supply chain that gives China an enormous amount of power.

However, it is not just the fact that China is deeply involved in supply chains that make it a threat, but it is that China is a nation that focuses explicitly on data gathering for the purpose of creating tools that control populations and that modern life has become dependent on technology. To address the first point, China actively uses facial recognition systems, AI, and tracking technologies to map where each and every citizen is, monitor their search history, determine if they are a threat to the regime, and then provide social credit scores that have the power to limit personal freedoms. This simply does not exist anywhere else in the world, making China a unique case for human rights violations and exceptionally cruel practices.

Addressing the second point, modern life has undoubtedly become dependent on technology to the point where any disruption to the power grid, cellular network, or road system will bring modern life grinding to a halt. While this has been true for the better part of 3 decades, it is only the recent introduction of internet-connected technologies that has exposed advanced nations to cyberattacks, and the ability of China to integrate backdoor devices into infrastructure gives China the ability to cause serious harm to other nations should it feel the need to “flex”. 

Potential monitoring devices found in UK government vehicles

As the threat of spyware continues to grow in the West, intelligence officials in the UK decided to do a security audit of key hardware, including mobiles, computers, and vehicles used by government officials and diplomats. During this investigation, at least one unknown SIM card and the accompanying device was found hidden in a government vehicle which has the capability to connect to cellular networks, track its position, and report back key details on the state of the vehicle.

According to the investigators, the device was hidden in a product sourced from China and most likely installed in the vehicle without the manufacturer’s knowledge. As automotive parts (such as electronic control units and modules) are complex in nature with numerous certifications, automakers will rarely open these up for visual inspection as this can void manufacturer warranties as well as breach contracts protecting IP and other trade practices. Furthermore, inspecting the contents of every single product used in a vehicle is a tiring process with little economic return, thus providing the prime opportunity to insert spyware.

Currently, the finding of the SIM card is the only detail that has been revealed, and while other findings have not been made public, investigation personnel have been quoted as saying that “rather disturbing things have been found”. However, it is interesting that the intelligence investigators have noted that while the hardware is Chinese-made, it is likely that the spying device was not explicitly targeted at government officials but as a generic data-gathering device for the sole purpose of spying on that specific car.

What does this mean for technology going forward?

The revelation of the SIM card in the vehicle comes as no surprise when considering China’s long history of integrating spying hardware into commercial products. Still, while SIM cards can be easy to spot, the introduction of eSIMs en masse could spell major trouble for the West as cellular devices can be made extremely small, using components that look nothing like a SIM card. 

As technology continues to become ever more critical in everyday life, governments worldwide will need to start identifying critical areas and preventing devices used in those applications from being manufactured by outside nations. This is already the case with cellular networks where the UK and US government have banned Huawei mobile technologies due to the close relationship between the Chinese government and Huawei and the ability of the Chinese government to interfere with manufactured equipment. 

But it may even be prudent to widen the area covered by device bans, as even individual people can present a threat to infrastructure. For example, IoT devices used in homes manufactured in China could provide Chinese agents with a large platform to launch internal cybersecurity threats, and this attack could easily be launched with a single command, making it impossible to prevent. Thus, responsibility for the defence of a nation doesn’t just lie with its government but with its people as well.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.