A new investigation from Reuters alleges Tesla employees routinely viewed and shared “highly invasive” video and images taken from the onboard cameras of owners’ vehicles—even from a Tesla owned by CEO Elon Musk.
While Tesla claims consumers’ data remains anonymous, former company workers speaking to Reuters described a far different approach to drivers’ privacy—one filled with rampant policy violations, customer ridicule, and memes, they claim.
Tesla’s cars feature a number of external cameras that inform vehicles’ “Full Self-Driving” Autopilot system—a program that has received its own fair share of regulatory scrutiny regarding safety issues. The AI underlying this technology, however, requires copious amounts of visual training, often through the direction of human reviewers such as Tesla’s employees, according to the new report. Workers collaborate with company engineers to often manually identify and label objects such as pedestrians, emergency vehicles, and roads’ lane lines, alongside a host of other subjects encountered in everyday driving scenarios, as detailed in the Reuters findings. This, however, requires access to vehicle cameras.
Tesla owners are led to believe camera feeds were handled by employees sensitively: The company’s Customer Privacy Notice states owners’ “recordings remain anonymous and are not linked to you or your vehicle,” while Tesla’s website states in no uncertain terms, “Your Data Belongs to You.”
While multiple former employees confirmed to Reuters the files were by-and-large used for AI training, that allegedly didn’t stop frequent internal sharing of images and video on the company’s internal messaging system, Mattermost. According to the report, staffers regularly exchanged images they encountered while labeling footage, often Photoshopping them for jokes and turning them into self-referential emojis and memes.
While one former worker claimed they never came across particularly salacious footage, such as nudity, they still saw “some scandalous stuff sometimes… just definitely a lot of stuff that, like, I wouldn’t want anybody to see about my life.” The same former employee went on to describe encountering “just private scenes of life,” including intimate moments, laundry contents, and even car owners’ children. Sometimes this also included “disturbing content,” the employee continued, such as someone allegedly being dragged to a car against their will.
Although two ex-employees said they weren’t troubled by the image sharing, others were so perturbed that they were wary of driving Tesla’s own company cars, knowing how much data could be collected within them, regardless of who owned the vehicles. According to Reuters, around 2020, multiple employees came across and subsequently shared a video depicting a submersible vehicle featured in the 1977 James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me. Its owner? Tesla CEO Elon Musk.