Tesla Camera Spy Scandal Isn’t Just a Tesla Problem

Does Tesla spy on its customers? At least some of its employees were, according to a recent Reuters report. Several former Tesla employees have said that from around 2019 to 2022 they saw footage of Tesla’s array of cameras built into cars. Employees said they passed sensitive videos – ranging from a car hitting a child to a naked man approaching a vehicle inside people’s garages – into an internal messaging system. The images were anonymized, but some contained enough information to re-identify the car they came from or had location data associated with it.

Although this news may seem shocking at first glance, it actually points to a difficult but ever-present reality. Newer cars are covered in cameras, and cars of the future will surely have even more. It is not always clear if and how these images are secure. And while the Reuters report is specifically about Tesla, that doesn’t mean only Tesla owners are at risk of this kind of privacy breach.

Before you assume your automaker is watching you and its employees are playing videos of you singing badly with your radio, consider a few caveats.

The Reuters report says the employees who viewed and released the videos were part of a team that was supposed to review the footage to improve Tesla’s self-driving abilities, such as helping it identify certain objects or traffic signs. That’s not unusual: smart assistants like Amazon’s Alexa sometimes ask human reviewers to listen to users’ audio to improve their products as well. (You can usually opt out or you must opt ​​in, depending on the company.) According to the Reuters article, Tesla obtained consent from drivers to review these images for this purpose. Tesla did not return a request for comment to confirm or further explain the report.

But Tesla employees reportedly went above and beyond their review duties, pulling out interesting and amusing clips and passing them around for their own amusement. It doesn’t improve a product, and it’s certainly not what Tesla owners thought they were going to accept.

But it’s an example of how we trade privacy for convenience when we trade in old cars for new ones. They are increasingly stuffed not just with cameras, but also with voice assistants, connected infotainment systems, and telemetry 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 can be used to improve products. Or it can be sold to the highest bidder, or it can be distributed and ridiculed. Sometimes you don’t know or don’t have a choice. But sometimes you do.

It also becomes impossible to get a car without cameras. New cars sold in the United States must be equipped with backup cameras starting in 2018 by federal law. These cameras usually do not record footage and send it anywhere. Other cameras do, including the dash cams that have become increasingly popular or the internal cameras that motorists often use for their own safety. Cameras can be a highly sought-after feature that improves safety and security and enables certain semi-autonomous and autonomous 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 room, and now on your dashboard.

Our cars are increasingly connected and computerized, collecting up to 25 gigabytes of data per hour. They can send this data to data brokers, and it can be difficult or impossible to stop them. And there is always the possibility that this data is obtained by hackers. You rely, as always, on someone else to protect your data and respect your privacy.

But there are also advantages. Insurance companies often offer discounts to customers who drive safely, which is determined by the apps or devices drivers install in their cars that monitor them. Connected car infotainment systems are getting better and better. And you might be happy to have a camera in your car when its recording proves an accident wasn’t your fault. This federal back-up camera mandate was intended to prevent accidents, such as running over a child who would otherwise not be seen.

If you’re not thrilled about Tesla employees recording footage of your car, there are a few things you can do. Don’t buy a Tesla, but since many other cars have these cameras, that probably won’t be enough. If you have the possibility, you can always refuse to have your data collected or your images sent to human reviewers. And before you add a camera to your dashboard, consider whether the potential benefits of having one outweigh the possible drawbacks. You may think so, but you should be given the opportunity to make an informed decision. And the company you entrust your car camera data to should be much better at protecting your sensitive information than Tesla apparently was.

The possible good news here is that reports like this are the kind of things that prompt regulators like the Federal Trade Commission to act if and when they can. Federal data privacy laws aren’t great — they’re almost non-existent, in fact — but the FTC has prosecuted companies caught violating consumer privacy when it can, like a company is lying. in its privacy policies. Incidentally, Tesla’s privacy policy states that users are “in control, even when it comes to your data.”

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