Elon Musk’s vision for Tesla has always been to build not just cars, but “sophisticated computers on wheels” that can update their software over the air, assess road conditions in real time, drive themselves in certain circumstances and monitor safety and security via video. Today (April 6), new privacy issues specifically related to recordings captured by Tesla vehicles have come to light.
Between 2019 and 2022, groups of Tesla employees shared videos and images recorded by Tesla’s in-car cameras via an internal messaging system, according to a Reuters report based on interviews with nine former Tesla workers.
The videos and images shared during that time included content of mundane day-to-day activities as well as sensitive and violent events.
One ex-employee said they saw a video recorded in 2021 showing a Tesla driving at high speed in a residential area and hitting a child riding a bike. Another described a video of a man approaching a vehicle completely naked.
“We could see them doing laundry and really intimate things. We could see their kids,” another former Tesla employee told Reuters.
Some videos were shared only between two employees, while others could be seen by scores of them, Reuters reported. The news agency said it wasn’t able to obtain any of the shared videos or images, which ex-employees said they hadn’t kept. It’s also unclear if the practice of sharing customer recordings is still going on.
Tesla has dissolved its media department and could not be reached for comment.
In its customer privacy notice, Tesla says its in-car camera recordings are anonymous. However, the company states if a customer agrees to share data, their vehicle “may collect the data and make it available to Tesla for analysis” to help it “improve its products, features, and diagnose problems quicker.”
Tesla also claims its in-car recordings won’t identify individual drivers or vehicles. But multiple former employees told Reuters the computer program they used at work could show the location of recordings, which potentially could reveal where a Tesla owner lived.
Tesla collects a ton of driving data through its in-car cameras for training its self-driving algorithms used in Autopilot and FSD software. The company hires a group of data labelers to identify objects in videos and images captured by these cameras, such as street lane lines and emergency vehicles, in order to teach algorithms to recognize these objects in the future.
Two former Tesla labelers told Reuters their work duties involved viewing images of customers at their homes, including inside garages.
“I sometimes wondered if these people know that we’re seeing that,” one of the former employees said.
“I saw some scandalous stuff sometimes, you know, like I did see scenes of intimacy but not nudity,” said another. “And there was just definitely a lot of stuff that like, I wouldn’t want anybody to see about my life.”
Multiple former employees said some labelers created memes based on customer images and shared them in private group chats accessible by other Tesla workers and managers. One former labeler described sharing images as a way to “break the monotony.” Another described how the sharing won admiration from peers.