To develop technology for self-driving cars, Tesla collects a huge amount of data from its global fleet of several million vehicles. The company requires car owners to give consent on the cars' touchscreens before Tesla collects their vehicles' data. But between 2019 and 2022, groups of Tesla employees privately shared, through an internal messaging system, sometimes highly invasive videos and images captured by customer car cameras, according to Reuters interviews with former employees.
According to the international news service Tesla in its online “Customer Privacy Statement” that its “camera recordings remain anonymous and are not associated with you or your vehicle.” But some former employees told Reuters that the computer program they used at work could show the location of recordings, potentially revealing where a Tesla owner or driver lived.
As with many artificial intelligence projects, Tesla hired data labelers to develop Autopilot to identify objects in images and videos to teach the system how to react when the vehicle was on the road or parked. Since about 2016, Tesla has employed hundreds of people in Africa and later in the United States to tag images to help its cars recognize pedestrians, street signs, construction vehicles, garage doors and other objects they encounter on the road or at customers' doors. To achieve that, data labelers were given access to thousands of videos or images captured by car cameras so they could view and identify objects.
For this story Reuters journalists Steve Stecklow, Waylon Cunningham and Hyunjoo Jin contacted more than 300 former Tesla employees who had worked for the company over the past nine years and were involved in the development of the self-driving system. More than a dozen agreed to answer questions, all on the condition of anonymity.
Some of the recordings put Tesla customers in embarrassing situations, according to Reuters. A former employee described a video of a man approaching a vehicle completely naked. Videos of traffic accidents were also shared. A 2021 crash video showed a Tesla traveling at high speed in a residential area and hitting a child on a bicycle, according to another former employee. The child flew one way, the bicycle the other. The video spread around a Tesla office in San Mateo, California, through private one-on-one chats, "like wildfire," the ex-employee said.
A former employee also said some of the footage appeared to have been taken with cars parked and turned off. Several years ago, Tesla would receive video recordings of its vehicles, even when they were turned off, if the owners gave permission. It has since stopped doing that. “We were able to look into people's garages and their private property,” said another former employee. "Let's say a Tesla customer had something in their garage that was distinctive, you know, people would post stuff like that."
Carlo Piltz, a data privacy lawyer in Germany, told Reuters it would be difficult to find legal justification under European data protection and privacy law for distributing vehicle recordings internally when it "has nothing to do with offering a safe or secure car or the functionality” of Tesla's self-driving system.
Elsewhere, regulators have scrutinized the Tesla system for potential privacy violations. But the privacy cases tend to focus not on the rights of Tesla owners, but of passersby unaware they may be being recorded by parked Tesla vehicles.
In February, the Dutch Data Protection Authority (AP) said it had completed an investigation into Tesla into possible privacy violations related to its “Sentry Mode,” a feature designed to record suspicious activity when a car is parked and alert the owner .
Tesla calls its automated driving system Autopilot. Introduced in 2015, the system included advanced features such as allowing drivers to change lanes by tapping a turn signal and parallel parking on command. To make the system work, Tesla initially installed sonar sensors, radar and a single front-facing camera at the top of the windshield. A subsequent version, introduced in 2016, included eight cameras around the car to collect more data and offer more possibilities.
Musk's vision for the future is to eventually offer a "Full Self-Driving" mode that would replace a human driver. Tesla began rolling out an experimental version of that mode in October 2020. While drivers must keep their hands on the wheel, it currently offers features such as the ability to automatically brake a car when it approaches stop signs or traffic lights.