Former Minister Says China Tracked British Primeminister’s Car Using ‘Little SIMs’

A British parliamentarian and former government minister has claimed that Chinese spies monitored the movements of the Primeminister’s official car via a SIM it contained. Sir Iain Duncan Smith made the assertion whilst talking to Nick Ferrari of LBC Radio.

What we’ll become is an offshoot for the Chinese… By the way, also those devices they’ve been putting into Downing Street cars, though they won’t admit it, tracking where the Primeminister was going, knowing who he was seeing… You may look back at a story about a year ago… It was never absolutely confirmed, of course they wouldn’t do for security reasons, but I’m pretty reliably told that they had to strip out the cars to find the devices that were based in the little SIMs, and they were capable and were tracking the cars and the car journeys. They have capability to be able to throw the switch, as it were, on batteries etcetera, as and when they wish.

The snippet was recorded by the Guido Fawkes political website; you can listen to it here.

Duncan Smith is a hawk when it comes to Britain’s relations with China, but he is also a political heavyweight who spent 6 years in government as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions after earlier serving as the Leader of the Opposition. Just a month ago the cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament issued a 200-page report that warned China had ‘penetrated’ every sector of the British economy. Their enquiry began by examining the question of whether Huawei should be permitted to supply 5G equipment to British networks. It soon expanded around the theme of the UK becoming too reliant on Chinese technology because of the security and strategic threat posed by a Chinese Communist Party that utilizes every resource to pursue its goals. Their report explained:

China almost certainly maintains the largest state intelligence apparatus in the world — dwarfing the UK’s Intelligence Community and presenting a challenge for our Agencies to cover. As a result, our Agencies’ work has to be targeted on those aspects that are most damaging. However, the problem is compounded by China’s ‘whole-of-state’ approach. In practice, this means that Chinese state-owned and non-state-owned companies, as well as academic and cultural establishments and ordinary Chinese citizens, are liable to be (willingly or unwillingly) co-opted into espionage and interference operations overseas…

Duncan Smith obviously lacked a strong technical grasp of how a spy agency would track the movements of a car, but his reference to ‘little SIMs’ could be his way of describing the embedded SIMs (eSIMs) now found in marquee car models. Various sources report that the last three British Primeministers have all used a custom Range Rover Sentinel as their official car. Per the company’s marketing, new Range Rovers are fitted with two eSIMs. The car manufacturer also states that these eSIMs are connected to the backup battery for the car’s satellite navigation and entertainment system, implying they can run independently when the car’s engine and other systems have been turned off.

The New Range Rover elevates Land Rover’s award-winning Pivi Pro infotainment technology with its largest ever touchscreen… With its own back-up battery providing immediate start-up, customers can begin music playback and enter a destination as soon as they get behind the wheel. The advanced system also features a pair of embedded eSIMs, which ensure SOTA updates can be completed faster without disrupting bandwidth for other applications such as media streaming. Combined with Pivi Pro’s back-up battery, the eSIMs also allow the system to start and connect more rapidly.

Duncan Smith offered no explanation for how Chinese spies might have subverted eSIMs. The public is unlikely to ever know the full truth about whether the Primeminister’s car was being tracked because of the potential impact on trade. For example, the business which makes Range Rovers has factories in China and is keen to increase sales to Chinese consumers. However, Duncan Smith’s offhand comment about SIMs in cars being used for surveillance does highlight a genuine privacy risk that has received insufficient attention so far.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.