Tesla cars are once again in the headlines over possible privacy issues after US magazine Consumer Reports highlighted concerns about their in-car cameras.
The in-car cameras are part of the driver monitoring system, which Tesla (and some other manufacturers) utilise to ensure the driver is paying attention to the road, and not sleeping at the wheel, as happened in Canada last September.
But Consumer Reports is concerned at the system being used in certain Tesla models, and the way they record and also transmit data or video.
“Although the majority of these systems – some with cameras pointed at the driver – are designed to protect the privacy of vehicle occupants, certain Tesla vehicles now record and transmit video footage of drivers and passengers from in-car cameras,” noted Consumer Reports.
It pointed out that Tesla said last week that it studies some footage recorded from these cameras after the fact as part of its research into self-driving technology.
“However, this use raises privacy concerns and also potentially undermines the safety benefits of driver monitoring, which is to use cameras and software to alert drivers when they’re not paying attention to the road,” warned the US magazine.
“If Tesla has the ability to determine if the driver isn’t paying attention, it needs to warn the driver in the moment, like other automakers already do,” said Jake Fisher, senior director of Consumer Reports’ auto test center.
The driver-facing camera is located above the rearview mirror in Model 3 and Model Y vehicles. It is called a “cabin camera” and is turned off by default.
But if drivers enable the cabin camera, Tesla will capture and share a video clip of the moments before a crash or automatic emergency braking (AEB) activation.
Tesla did not respond to CR’s emailed request for additional information about its in-car monitoring systems.
Tesla’s approach is in stark contrast to so-called closed-loop setups used by other car makers, such as BMW, Ford, and GM, who told CR that their driver monitoring systems do not record, save, or transmit data or video.
John Davisson, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), says such closed-loop systems do not present the same privacy concerns as a system that records or transmits data or video.
“Any time video is being recorded, it can be accessed later,” Davisson reportedly said.
“There may be legal protections around who can access it and how, but there’s always the possibility that insurance companies, police, regulators, and other parties in accidents will be able to obtain that data,” Davisson said.
In addition to those foreseeable uses, Davisson warns that malicious actors could access recorded footage, or that Tesla could use it for purposes other than safety research.
The internal cameras in Tesla cars has been a concern for Chinese authorities as well, with the Chinese military banning Tesla cars from entering its secure locations over the matter.
This week Tesla boss Elon Musk denied the company’s cars could be used to leak information from China, and if its cars did spy, the firm would be shut down.
China is Tesla’s largest market after the US, and accounted for about one-third of its deliveries last year.
But Chinese regulators summoned the firm over customers’ reports of quality issues, including battery fires.
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