Amid growing tensions with China, Tesla is opening a data center in the country that will store data generated by Tesla vehicles used in the country. China has especially expressed concern about security issues regarding the vehicles’ onboard cameras.
Privacy has been frequently cited as a concern with Tesla’s onboard interior and exterior cameras, which could capture footage of private activities by passengers while they are in the vehicle. These cameras have certainly captured valuable video evidence of vandalism of Tesla vehicles, including one case in which the footage proved instrumental in capturing a man who allegedly attempted to steal the tires on a Tesla vehicle of a Springfield, Missouri, churchgoer as part of a string of crimes targeting members of a mostly African-American Presbyterian church.
Tesla says that the data will be stored securely as parts of its efforts to assure Chinese officials who have expressed concern about Tesla’s data collection policies and the vehicles’ onboard cameras. The Chinese government has banned employees from parking their Tesla vehicles at government-owned facilities due to concern that the cameras could capture footage of sensitive activities, for instance. Tesla claims that the vehicle cameras are not active in China and would not be activated unless a customer chooses to buy access to the Autopilot or Full Self-Driving software.
Security does appear to be an ongoing concern for Tesla. Just last March, a “hacktivist” group named APT-69420 Arson Cats were able to access security cameras used by a handful of companies that included Tesla and administrated by the camera’s manufacturer, Verkada. The Arson Cats say that their goal was to draw attention to how prevalent surveillance is even in places where there might be a reasonable expectation of privacy and how weak the security used by security camera companies like Verkada is.
Sensitive data has also been leaked by disgruntled employees like Martin Tripp, who distributed documents that he said would prove that Tesla’s Nevada factory made use of unsafe employment practices to the media. Tesla says that the documents were misrepresented by Tripp and may have been misrepresented by the media. It has also alleged in court documents that Tripp’s legal defense was being funded by short sellers of Tesla stock. Tesla won a court case claiming that he violated Nevada’s cybersecurity laws by doing so and Tripp lost a countersuit saying that the company defamed him.
So it may be difficult to completely guarantee that the data captured by Tesla vehicles, which could include video footage and driving data that the company uses to refine its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving software, will remain secure. Security risks could include hackers, disgruntled employees, and even attempts by foreign nationals to bribe employees to inject malware into the system.
Tesla’s decision to open a data center in China may not be spurred by its own security concerns, though. Sales of Tesla vehicles have dropped in China, with only 25,845 vehicles sold in April. This is a 27.1% drop from March sales. Perhaps this is nothing surprising, considering that the Chinese government is a large employer of its own people and it often owns a stake in China-based companies or otherwise has ways to pressure Chinese companies into assisting with its own interests. Even so, China is regarded as an important enough market for Tesla that it reportedly considered purchasing some more land near Gigafactory Shanghai for expansions before reversing course on that idea.