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The US will investigate cars built in China over security concerns

The White House says connected cars 'collect large amounts of sensitive data on their drivers and passengers.'

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The White House has announced an investigation into cars built in China and other unnamed "countries of concern." The Biden administration notes that cars are "constantly connecting" with drivers' phones, other vehicles, American infrastructure and their manufacturers, and that newer models use tech such as driver assist systems.

"Connected vehicles collect large amounts of sensitive data on their drivers and passengers; regularly use their cameras and sensors to record detailed information on US infrastructure; interact directly with critical infrastructure; and can be piloted or disabled remotely," the White House said in a statement. Officials are concerned that "new vulnerabilities and threats" could arise from connected vehicles if foreign governments are able to access data from them. They are especially wary that said countries of concern could use such information in ways that put national security at risk.

The Department of Commerce will lead the investigation. "We need to understand the extent of the technology in these cars that can capture wide swaths of data or remotely disable or manipulate connected vehicles, so we are soliciting information to determine whether to take action under our ICTS [information and communications technology and services] authorities," Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said.

Through its advance notice of proposed rulemaking [PDF], the agency is looking for feedback from the public to help determine "the technologies and market participants that may be most appropriate for regulation." The investigation will help the Commerce Department decide whether to take action. It's the first time that the agency's Bureau of Industry and Security is carrying out an investigation under Trump-era Executive Orders "focused on protecting domestic information and communications technology and services supply chains from national security threats," the White House said.

"China is determined to dominate the future of the auto market, including by using unfair practices. China’s policies could flood our market with its vehicles, posing risks to our national security. I’m not going to let that happen on my watch," President Joe Biden said. "Connected vehicles from China could collect sensitive data about our citizens and our infrastructure and send this data back to the People’s Republic of China. These vehicles could be remotely accessed or disabled."

As The Washington Post points out, cars built in China aren't especially common on US roads as yet, but they're becoming an increasingly familiar sight in other markets, such as Europe. While many of the vehicles that are causing concerns are EVs, its cars' cameras, sensors and software that are the focus of the probe.

It's not the first time that the US has investigated Chinese companies over concerns that they pose security risks to the country's infrastructure. A few years ago, it banned the import and sale of telecom networking equipment made by Huawei and ZTE (after stopping government employees from using the companies' phones). The government also required telecoms to remove and replace Huawei and ZTE gear in existing infrastructure at great expense.