Several former Tesla employees have approached media outlets with claims that, from 2019 to 2022, an internal company chat channel was maintained that was used to share sensitive images and videos from customer vehicle cameras as a form of at-work entertainment.
The situation is described as if customer vehicle cameras were used as a sort of internal Twitter feed, with Tesla employees commenting on everything from the fairly innocuous (amusing road signs and town names) to extremely privacy-invasive (intimate encounters in cars and auto accidents). The camera feeds are anonymized, but Tesla employees retain the ability to look up the GPS location of each incident and could potentially link a driver’s identity to it.
Tesla employees allegedly entertained themselves inappropriately at work
At least a dozen former Tesla employees spoke to Reuters to blow the whistle on the internal use of vehicle cameras as a way to have some fun at work. The employees said that sharing was not always done via the chat channel; sometimes two employees would simply message each other with a video. However, some of the most sensationalist and disturbing videos were reportedly made available to the whole office, including a child on a bicycle being hit by a Tesla driver in a gruesome accident.
Other over-the-line content reportedly shared included naked people outside of vehicles, intimate encounters inside of vehicles, and the interiors of garages and private properties that had “distinctive features” that Tesla employees wanted to comment on. The social sharers appear to have nearly landed themselves in trouble at one point when a submersible vehicle used in a James Bond film became a hit in the office, only for it later to be revealed that it belonged to owner Elon Musk and was in one of his private garages.
Reuters reached out to 300 former Tesla employees that worked at the company over the past nine years, but the vast majority declined to speak about the issue. Some said that they only observed material from vehicle cameras being used for work purposes. Neither Tesla nor Elon Musk have commented on the story as of yet.
How sensitive images from vehicle cameras wind up available to Tesla employees
Reuters notes that the internal sharing practices may not have stopped in 2022, as that is simply the last date that one of their contacts verified that it was happening. None of the former Tesla employees said that they had taken images or videos from vehicle cameras home.
The Reuters report does not indicate exactly what parts of Tesla were engaged in sharing material from vehicle cameras, but it may have been primarily among a small army of contractors that Tesla has employed since 2016 to work as data labelers. These labelers view images captured by cars and label them to help train internal automated driving systems. This process has been increasingly automated over the years and the number of contractors has been greatly reduced, but the company retains a facility in Buffalo that has about 675 such employees.
Two of the former Tesla employees that spoke to Reuters seemed to encapsulate the attitude that leads to such internal sharing: they feel that people long ago waived their right to privacy, and that the consent they give to the company to access vehicle cameras is enough of a legal shield. Others said that they were troubled by it, however, and felt that customers are largely not aware of how much access the company has to their car cameras and collected data.
Tesla is one of a relative few car manufacturers to include in-cabin cameras as a standard feature. The Model 3 and Model Y ship with a camera mounted above the rearview mirror, meant to detect “driver inattentiveness” when the “Autopilot” mode is engaged. All Teslas with driver assistance systems have eight external cameras, and can be put in a “Sentry” mode that begins recording when someone is detected approaching the vehicle. The Model 3 and Model Y were criticized when the decision was made in mid-2021 to remove the supplemental radar used in the automated driving system, with newer models now relying entirely on the cameras.
However, some of the former Tesla employees say that managers would at times crack down on inappropriate sharing when discovered. There was some talk of pictures of people’s children being shared internally, which could be a serious issue, as could the fact that some owners were captured in a state of undress.