Is Tesla spying on its customers? At least some of its employees were, according to a recent Reuters report. Several ex-Tesla employees said that, from about 2019 to 2022, they saw footage from the array of cameras that are built into Tesla’s cars. The employees said they passed sensitive videos — everything from a car crashing into a child to a naked man approaching a vehicle to the insides of people’s garages — around in an internal messaging system. The images were anonymized, but some had enough information in them to re-identify whose car they came from or had location data associated with them.
While this news may seem shocking on its face, it actually points to a difficult but ever-present reality. Newer cars are covered in cameras, and the cars of the future will surely have even more of them. It’s not always clear if and how this footage is secured. And while the Reuters report is specifically about Tesla, it doesn’t mean that only Tesla owners risk these kinds of privacy invasions.
Before you assume that your carmaker is watching you and its employees are passing around videos of you singing badly along with your radio, consider a few caveats.
The Reuters report said that the employees who viewed and passed around videos were part of a team that’s supposed to review this footage in order to make Tesla’s self-driving capabilities better — for instance, by helping it identify certain objects or street signs. That’s not unusual: Smart assistants like Amazon’s Alexa sometimes have human reviewers listen to users’ audio to improve their products, too. (You can typically opt out of this or you have to opt in, depending on the company.) According to the Reuters article, Tesla got consent from drivers to review that footage for this purpose. Tesla didn’t return a request for comment to confirm or further explain the report.
But the Tesla employees allegedly went beyond their reviewing duties, pulling out interesting and funny clips and passing them around for their own amusement. That’s not improving a product, and it’s surely not what Tesla owners thought they were agreeing to.
But it is an example of how we trade privacy for convenience when we trade in old cars for new ones. They’re increasingly crammed not just with cameras but also voice assistants, connected infotainment systems, and telemetrics that collect tons of data from hundreds, if not thousands, of data points. These can provide features that customers want, or the data they collect may be used to make the products better. Or it may be sold off to the highest bidder, or it may be passed around and laughed at. Sometimes you don’t know about or have a choice in this. But sometimes you do.
It’s also becoming impossible to get a car that doesn’t have cameras in it. New cars sold in the US must have backup cameras as of 2018, per a federal law. These cameras typically don’t record footage or send it anywhere. Other cameras do, including dashcams that have become increasingly popular or internal cameras that ride-hail drivers often use for their own safety. Cameras can be a much-desired feature that improve safety and security and enable some semi-autonomous and self-driving capabilities. Even Amazon’s Ring cameras have a special car model, so you can have your Ring camera on your doorstep, in your kid’s bedroom, and now on your dashboard.
Our cars are increasingly connected and computerized, collecting as much as 25 gigabytes an hour of data. They may send that data to data brokers, and it can be difficult if not impossible to stop them. And there’s always the possibility that this data could be obtained by hackers. You are, as always, relying on someone else to protect your data and respect your privacy.
But there are upsides, too. Insurance companies often offer discounts to customers who drive safely, which is determined by apps or devices drivers install in their cars that monitor them. Connected cars’ infotainment systems are getting better and better. And you might be glad you have a camera in your car when its recording proves an accident wasn’t your fault. That federal backup camera mandate was meant to prevent accidents, like running over a child that wouldn’t otherwise be seen.
If you’re not thrilled about the idea of Tesla employees memeing footage from your car, there are a few things you can do. Don’t buy a Tesla might be one, but since lots of other cars have these cameras in them, that probably won’t be enough. If you have the option, you can always decline to have your data collected or footage sent off to human reviewers. And before adding a camera to your dashboard, consider if the potential pros of having one outweigh the possible cons. You may well think it does, but you should have the option of making an informed decision. And the company you entrust your car’s camera data to should be a lot better at protecting your sensitive information than Tesla apparently was.