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Child hit by car among videos 'captured by Tesla vehicles, shared among staff'

Intimate, disturbing moments became message board memes, probably

Tesla workers over the past few years have reportedly shared sensitive and embarrassing videos captured by the cameras built into their customers' cars.

That would suggest the automaker's privacy policy commitment that "camera recordings remain anonymous and are not linked to you or your vehicle" doesn't mean much because the videos are linked to locations which in turn can reveal the identities of the owners.

Seven employees, speaking to Reuters, said "the computer program they used at work could show the location of recordings – which potentially could reveal where a Tesla owner lived."

Tesla's Model 3 owner's manual says, "By default, images and video from the camera do not leave the vehicle itself and are not transmitted to anyone, including Tesla, unless you enable data sharing."

The image sharing described allegedly occurred between 2019 and 2022 via an internal message system.

Some of the videos are described as intimate or embarrassing, such as an account provided by one employee of a video that captured a man approaching his car while naked. Another video said to have been widely shared involved a Tesla driving through a residential area at high speed and hitting a child on a bike.

Also reportedly popular among employees was a video of the white Lotus Esprit that can turn into a submarine, from the 1977 James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me. This was recorded in a garage, near a video-recording Tesla presumably. As it happens, Tesla CEO Elon Musk purchased the custom Lotus at auction in 2013.

One employee told Reuters that in the past, Tesla could capture video from vehicles even when the cars were turned off if owners consented. That apparently is no longer the case.

Those interviewed about the video sharing gave a mixed account of the internal data sharing: some were not bothered by the practice because customers had been informed about company data collection while others found it troubling.

Some of these images reportedly became screenshots or memes shared among groups of employees via Mattermost, Tesla's internal messaging system. Managers are said to have cracked down on the practice, which Reuters claims continued at least to the middle of last year.

One of the reasons for Tesla's video data gathering, according to the news agency, is to label objects in video frames to refine the training of machine learning models (eg, those used in Tesla's Autopilot system). Reinforcement learning from human feedback (RLHF) has become a common way to improve algorithmic decision making.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment: our email inquiry bounced. The automaker dissolved its public relations department three years ago.

When you accept some company’s recording devices into your life, you lose control of your privacy

In a statement on Thursday, Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, characterized Reuters' findings as shocking but unsurprising.

"Shocking because it’s a significant abuse of privacy — but unsurprising because this is a pattern that has happened repeatedly for many years," said Stanley. "Unfortunately, today, when you accept some company’s recording devices into your life, you lose control of your privacy."

Citing similar incidents – involving information captured by Amazon Ring cameras and Alexa smart speaker software, by Google Assistant, and by Apple Siri – Stanley called for giving customers more control over the data captured by their devices and for privacy laws strong enough to compel better privacy practices. ®

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