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Tesla Staff Shared Sensitive Images From Customer Cars

Tesla Inc. promises the tens of millions of owners of electric vehicles that “eternally hugely essential to us” is their privacy. According to a statement on its website, the driving assistance cameras the company installs in cars are “built from the ground up to secure your privacy.”

According to interviews conducted by Reuters with nine former employees between 2019 and 2022, however, groups of Tesla employees privately discussed via an internal messaging system occasionally extremely intrusive films and photographs taken by customers’ car cameras.

A few of the recordings showed Tesla customers in awkward circumstances. A video of a man approaching a vehicle while entirely naked was described by one ex-employee. Accidents and cases of road rage are also shared. According to a different ex-employee, a Tesla was seen in a crash video from 2021 traveling quickly through a residential neighborhood before striking a child riding a bike.

Both the toddler and the bike flew in opposite directions. The ex-employee claimed that the video circulated “like wildfire” through private one-on-one talks within the Tesla headquarters in San Mateo, California. Other pictures were more commonplace; for example, staff added witty comments or commentary to images of dogs and funny road signs to turn them into memes before uploading them in personal group conversations.


According to multiple former employees, some postings were only visible to two individuals, while others were accessible to hundreds of them. Tesla claims that its “camera recordings stay anonymous and are not linked to you or your vehicle” in its online “Customer Privacy Notice.” However, seven ex-workers revealed to Reuters that a computer tool they used at the time may expose the location of recordings, which might reveal a Tesla owner’s residence.

However, according to one ex-employee, several recordings appeared to have been captured while automobiles were parked and switched off. Tesla used to be able to obtain video records from its vehicles even when they were not in use if the owners gave permission. Since then, it has ceased to do so. Another ex-employee claimed, “We could see inside people’s garages and their private properties.”

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Let’s imagine a Tesla customer had something unique in their garage. People would share those kinds of things, right? Detailed inquiries submitted to Tesla for this article went unanswered. According to two persons who watched it, a video of an unusual submersible vehicle parked inside a garage was discovered and shared by several employees about three years ago.

The white Lotus Esprit sub, known as “Wet Nellie,” appeared in the 1977 James Bond movie “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, acquired the car in 2013 at an auction for approximately $968,000. Whether Musk was aware of the film or that it had been circulated is unknown.

A comment from Musk was not forthcoming.

Reuters contacted more than 300 former Tesla workers who had worked there over the previous nine years and were engaged in the creation of its self-driving system in order to report this story. Almost a dozen individuals volunteered to answer questions under the condition of anonymity. Ex-employees claimed they hadn’t saved the shared films and photographs, but Reuters was unable to obtain any of them.

The news organization was also unable to determine whether or to what extent the practice of exchanging recordings, which was observed in some areas of Tesla as late as last year, is still practiced today. When contacted, some former workers claimed the only sharing they saw was done for proper business needs, including asking coworkers or managers for help.

Pedestrians and Street Sign Labeling

Sharing private recordings serves to highlight one of the less-noticed characteristics of AI systems: Companies frequently need armies of people to assist in teaching machines to master automated operations like driving. In order to train its cars to recognize pedestrians, street signs, construction vehicles, garage doors, and other items encountered on the road or at customers’ homes, Tesla has engaged hundreds of people in Africa and later the United States to classify photographs.

To do that, automobile cameras were used to record thousands of movies or photos that data labelers could see and identify objects in. Tesla has been automating the process more and more, and last year the company closed a data-labeling hub in San Mateo, California. Yet, it still has hundreds of data labelers working for it in Buffalo, New York. Tesla reported in February that there were now 675 employees, up 54% from the previous six months.

Two former employees claimed that they weren’t troubled by the sharing of photographs since either client had given their agreement or people had long since abandoned any hope of keeping personal information secret. Yet, according to three more, it worried them.

To be honest, that was a privacy violation. And I used to jokingly say that after seeing how some of these individuals were handled, I would never buy a Tesla,” claimed one former worker. Another person said: “That bothers me because I don’t think the people who buy the cars know that their privacy is, like, not protected… They were seen doing laundry and other extremely private activities. Their kids were visible to us.

Sharing pictures was fine in the opinion of one ex-employee, but the ability for data labelers to view recordings’ locations on Google Maps was seen as a “huge breach of privacy.” Tesla employees exchanging private films and photographs is “morally repugnant,” according to David Choffnes, executive director of Northeastern University’s Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute in Boston.

He stated, “Any reasonable person would be outraged by this.” He pointed out that disseminating sensitive and private information would be seen as a breach of Tesla’s own privacy policy, which could prompt the U.S. Federal Trade Commission—which upholds federal laws protecting consumers’ privacy—to take action.

According to an FTC representative, the agency doesn’t comment on specific businesses or their behavior. Tesla gathers a large amount of data from its global fleet of several million vehicles to develop self-driving car technology. Before collecting data from customers’ automobiles, the firm requests their consent via the touchscreens in their vehicles. According to Tesla’s website, “Your Info Belongs to You.”

If a consumer decides to share data, Tesla says that “your vehicle may collect the data and make the data available to Tesla for analysis.” This is stated in the company’s Customer Privacy Notice. Tesla can more quickly diagnose issues and improve its features and products thanks to this analysis. However, it adds that the information “does not individually identify you” and may include “brief video clips or photos,” but is not connected to a customer’s account or vehicle identification number.

Carlo Piltz, a data privacy attorney in Germany, told Reuters that it would be challenging to find a legal justification under European data protection and privacy law for Tesla’s self-driving system’s internal distribution of vehicle recordings when it has “nothing to do with the provision of a safe or secure car.”

Tesla’s car camera system has generated debate in previous years. Because of worries about its cameras, some government complexes and residential areas in China have prohibited Teslas. In reaction, Musk warned that Tesla would be shut down if it deployed cars to spy in China or anyplace else in a 2021 imaginary speech at a Chinese event.

Regulators in several jurisdictions have investigated the Tesla system for possible privacy infringement. The privacy cases, however, have a tendency to focus on the rights of bystanders who are unaware that they might be being recorded by parked Tesla vehicles rather than the rights of Tesla owners.

The “Sentry Mode” feature, which is intended to record any suspicious activity when a car is parked and notify the owner, was the subject of a probe by the Dutch Data Protection Authority, or DPA, which announced in February that it had concluded its investigation of Tesla over potential privacy violations.

“Without their knowledge, onlookers who passed by these automobiles were being filmed. Also, Tesla owners could see these pictures in the past, according to a statement from DPA board member Katja Mur. “A person could spy inside someone else’s home and watch everything they were doing if they parked one of these cars in front of their window. That seriously violates people’s privacy.

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The watchdog found that the owners of the automobiles, not Tesla, were legally accountable for the recordings made by their vehicles. It claimed that when Tesla stated that it had made various improvements to Sentry Mode, including having a vehicle’s headlights pulse to alert bystanders that they may be being videotaped, it had opted not to punish the business. A DPA representative declined to comment on Reuters’ findings but wrote in an email that “sensitive personal data must be protected” and that “Personal data must be utilized for a defined purpose.”

Substituting Human Drivers

Tesla’s automatic driving system is referred known as Autopilot. The system was released in 2015 and featured cutting-edge functions like parallel parking on demand and lane change by turn signal tap. Tesla first put sonar sensors, radar, and a single front-facing camera at the top of the windshield to make the system function. Eight cameras were added to the car’s exterior in a second iteration that was unveiled in 2016 in order to gather more information and provide more capabilities.

Musk envisions a “Full Self-Driving” option being available in the future, which would take the place of a human driver. In October 2020, Tesla started releasing an experimental version of the such mode. It presently has capabilities like the capacity to automatically slow down a car when it approaches stop signs or traffic lights, even though drivers must retain their hands on the wheel.


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