Consumer Reports Says Tesla’s Interior Cameras Could Compromise Privacy

On the wake of news that China has banned Tesla vehicles on military-owned facilities and other government properties that might contain sensitive government information, Consumer Reports has issued a report saying that Tesla’s interior cameras could compromise the privacy of passengers.

While companies can be held liable for invasions of privacy, there have been cases where corporations tried to skirt around privacy regulations with end user agreements designed to intimidate buyers into giving up their rights. In one extreme case, the maker of the Sleep Number mattress has denied using its voice command system, which was only used with its now-discontinued X12 model mattress, to monitor owners’ activity while using the mattress. The company was not necessarily believed, considering that its privacy policy at the time stated that it may collect audio related to “snoring and similar sleep conditions.”

Tesla’s interior cameras can collect and transmit footage from inside the vehicle’s cabin. Owners can opt out, but those who fail to tick that box could be unintentionally sending a wealth of information to Tesla’s servers, and possibly also third party servers.

Consumer Reports found that Tesla can use the information to monitor driver activity and possibly ban inattentive drivers from using the Full Self-Driving software. Full Self-Driving is still in beta and Tesla may simply not want the liability that comes with an inattentive driver using the software if the vehicle gets into a wreck. It has already had to deal with inattentive drivers participating in its beta program.

Consumer Reports says that the ban could come with no warning. Competing automaker GM, which has developed the driver assist program Super Cruise, has included an escalating warning system to keep drivers attentive.

The camera system in the Model 3 and Model Y were especially a concern. It can record video in the moments before an emergency braking event or crash for transmission to a remote location. Such video could become valuable video evidence for a Tesla owner who was paying attention but couldn’t react in time to an unexpected event like a deer running out into a road or another vehicle running a red light.

The external camera system has especially proven useful in cases in which vandals caused damage to Tesla vehicles. As the below video shows, Tesla has a Sentry Mode that can record video footage that could be used as evidence in vandalism cases, which may have sparked China’s concern that the camera system could be used to capture footage on sensitive activities on its facilities.

It could also fall into the wrong hands if the video footage is not properly secured, which can especially be a concern in regards to “hacktivist” groups like the one that recently hacked into the security system of some Tesla facilities and gained access to camera footage. Although Tesla says that the VIN number is not attached to video footage transmitted from its vehicles, Consumer Reports did say that faces could be easily recognizable and passengers might not consent to being recorded.

Tesla has not yet released a statement on the latest Consumer Reports statement on concerns related to its vehicles. Consumer Reports had previously downgraded a few Tesla models in its Annual Auto Reliability Report.