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How Tesla employees violated customers’ privacy by sharing their car videos

 

Tesla’s privacy practices under scrutiny after employees shared customers’ private videos

Tesla, the electric car maker known for its advanced self-driving features, is facing criticism over its privacy practices after a report revealed that some of its employees shared and mocked private videos recorded by customers’ cars. The videos, which were recorded by the cameras mounted on Tesla vehicles to enable autonomous driving, included graphic crashes, road rage incidents, and intimate scenes.

According to Reuters, which interviewed more than a dozen former Tesla employees who worked on the development of the self-driving system from 2019 to 2022, the videos were shared via Tesla’s internal messaging systems. Some employees even created memes using captures from the videos and posted them in private group chats.

The videos ranged from a naked man approaching a car to a car hitting a child on a bicycle at high speed. Some employees also reported seeing personal items such as laundry or sexual health devices in customers’ garages or properties. One former employee told Reuters that some of the videos may have been recorded when the vehicles were turned off. “We could see inside people’s garages and their private properties,” the former employee said.

Tesla’s privacy policy states that “camera recordings remain anonymous unless we receive data as a result of a safety event (such as a collision or airbag deployment) and they are not linked to you or your vehicle.” However, according to the former employees, Tesla’s system could show the location where the videos were recorded, which could allow them to identify the owners’ addresses.

Reuters reported that Tesla previously had a policy that allowed it to receive recordings from non-running vehicles if customers agreed to it. But after an investigation by the Dutch Data Protection Authority (DPA) found that Tesla vehicles “often filmed everyone who came near the vehicle,” Tesla turned off its vehicles’ cameras by default by 2023.

Tesla launched Sentry Mode in 2019, advertising the feature as a way to alert drivers of any suspicious activity around their parked vehicles and then store recorded incidents in the car’s onboard memory. Tesla updated this feature in 2021 and started letting drivers use their vehicles’ cameras to livestream their cars’ surroundings from the Tesla app. On its support page for the feature, Tesla says “Sentry Mode recordings are not transmitted to us” while adding that livestreams are end-to-end encrypted and “cannot be accessed” by the company.

Tesla also added some privacy-focused tweaks to Sentry Mode following the DPA’s investigation. Now cameras only start recording when the vehicle is touched, instead of right when it detects suspicious activity. Tesla also started warning passersby that its vehicles are recording by making their headlights flash.

The Netherlands is not the only country where Tesla’s Sentry Mode has raised concerns. Last year, Germany’s consumer organization VZBZ sued Tesla, claiming Sentry Mode “violates data protection law.” Tesla vehicles were also banned from China’s Beidaihe district last year over concerns that the vehicles’ cameras would capture a private meeting between the country’s senior leadership, while the Chinese military banned Tesla vehicles in 2021 over similar surveillance concerns.

Reuters contacted more than 300 former Tesla employees who worked at Tesla in the past nine years for its report, but none of them had kept any of the videos or images that were shared internally. Reuters also could not confirm how widespread the sharing of recorded videos was within Tesla as of 2022 or whether it continued into 2023.

Some former employees said that the sharing of videos was only for appropriate work purposes, such as seeking advice from colleagues or supervisors. However, another former employee told Reuters, “To be honest, it’s a privacy violation. We always joked about how we wouldn’t buy Teslas ourselves because we saw how Tesla treats its customers.” Another former employee said, “People who bought Teslas don’t know that their privacy is not respected. You see them doing laundry or really intimate scenes.”

Tesla did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment on its report.

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