Elon Musk recently denied that Tesla vehicles were used to spy on foreign governments after the vehicles were banned from Chinese military bases and other sensitive sites. Other reporting indicates that even the off-duty use of Tesla vehicles is being restricted for key personnel, because the Chinese government suspects that the company’s vehicles were already involved in the leaking of secret information.
It’s Almost Impossible That Tesla Or Musk Are Involved
First, let’s talk some common sense. It’s extremely unlikely that Tesla volunteered to cooperate with U.S. spy agencies. There’s nothing for the company to gain from doing that, while there are billions and even worse to lose. Tesla knows that if they were caught spying for the U.S. government, they’d be shut down and probably have all of their property seized in China. Key company officials (at least as many as Beijing could capture) would likely be arrested and tried for espionage. It wouldn’t be pretty at all for the company or any involved employees.
The obvious counterargument is that Elon Musk, as a U.S. citizen, would consider the spying his patriotic duty, but that argument falls even flatter. The U.S. government hasn’t been very hospitable to Elon Musk or his companies in many cases. There were the bogus SEC investigations over his tweets, which I call bogus because they were dismissed (and also, seriously, how childish is it to sue over tweets?), SpaceX accuses the U.S. Air Force of favoring other companies over them for political reasons, and recently the NTSB told NHTSA that it needs to crack down on Autopilot and the FSD Beta.
If you were Elon Musk, would you be doing the U.S. government illegal favors at great personal risk? Just think that over for a bit.
The U.S. Government Is Dirty
I’m not even persecuted by them the way Elon Musk has been, and I know that our government is highly corrupt. On the spying front, we know from things Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers revealed that our own government is heavily involved in illegal and unethical spying. There’s a whole Wikipedia article detailing the dozens of programs that never should have been. There’s the deep, deep oil company corruption of the government, which we can see quite clearly in the ongoing persecution of Steven Donziger (I’m writing a whole article about this once I’m done with this one).
On top of that, none of this is new. Anyone taking an honest look at J. Edgar Hoover knows that his character was accurately portrayed in The Man in the High Castle, and he was the head of the FBI for decades. Nobody dared fire him because he had dirt on everyone. There was the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the ammunition packed below civilians in the Lusitania, both lies we were told for decades after they were used to swing the U.S. into wars.
After the long train of abuses and usurpations we’ve seen, nobody in their right mind would want to risk their business and personal reputation to assist the U.S. government to do illegal things in other countries unless they were getting something for it (and thus were part of the corruption). You’d think that if Elon Musk did this, he’d at least get some breathing room from the government, which he clearly isn’t getting.
If anything, they’re going after him because he told them where to stick it.
They Probably Helped Themselves To Tesla’s Computers
The Chinese government wouldn’t have invited Tesla into their country if they thought spying would occur, and they certainly want the company to help them achieve a better footing with regard to renewable energy. However, they do assert that sensitive details of some sort were leaked and they have reason to believe a nearby Tesla could have been involved in the leaking, and given the favored treatment the company has gotten in the past, they clearly don’t have it in for Tesla.
As we’ve learned from Snowden, the supervillains in the CIA don’t need anyone’s help to help themselves to things like laptop cameras. Laptop manufacturers aren’t giving away backdoors — the NSA hacks their way into whatever hardware and servers it takes to get the information they want, and if they can’t get in, they find someone to blackmail or otherwise coerce into giving them access.
I know some argue that accusing Tesla of spying is a retaliation for accusations and actions against Chinese companies like Huawei and DJI, who very well may be involved in spying. After all, the Chinese government are no angels, either. We would be fools to assume that they aren’t corrupt, too. They’re spying on anything they can get away with spying on, and all while not even pretending to afford their citizens much in the way of civil liberties.
The more likely answer is that the U.S. government is actually using Teslas to spy on Chinese military and company officials without the company’s knowledge. It fits their modus operandi, and they have great motivation to spy on Chinese officials. If officials are taking cameras into sensitive facilities and to their homes, it’s an extremely tempting target for hacking, and we know that they have the technical capability to do it.
Would they risk Musk’s rear to do this? Absolutely. In fact, that might be a plus for corrupt officials with dirty oil money lining their pockets.
This Can Be Addressed
I do have to be honest and say there’s no direct evidence for any of this, but given the U.S. government’s lack of scruples when it comes to things like spying, would you really put this past them? You can’t sit there and seriously tell me that the NSA wouldn’t do this in a heartbeat if they found a way to do it.
Either way, we’ll know if I was right decades from now when anyone responsible for this is already dead or the statute of limitations has passed and old documents get declassified.
If I was running Tesla, I’d have the best experts take a hard look at the cars and servers to look for the U.S. government’s footprints. They’re very likely all over the scene of the crime, and nobody covers their tracks perfectly.
I’d also be looking at offering an optional “airgap” package for people dealing with sensitive information. Having a switch that disconnects all antennas and cuts power to all radios would be great. Having optional lens caps for all cameras would also be a great way to help protect trust in the company’s vehicles. People guarding sensitive installations could verify that both features are enabled/in use before allowing a Tesla vehicle onto the facility’s grounds.
Either way, the company could probably use some more “paranoid” thinking like mine, because nobody is paranoid when there is actually someone out to get them (or their data). We have to always be on the lookout for bad actors and put ourselves in their shoes to think about what they’ll do.
Featured image: People enthusiastically greet a Tesla’s Sentry Mode when they see it’s recording them, as described in this CleanTechnica article.
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