Footage from the cameras of a Tesla helped the Department of Justice crack an alleged string of hate crimes in Springfield, Missouri, that included slashing the tires of cars that belonged to African-Americans and setting fire to a local church with primarily African-American members. The suspect, a 44-year-old Maine resident named Dushko Vulchev, is now accused of setting the fire that gutted Martin Luther King Jr. Community Presbyterian Church.
The Department of Justice accuses Vulchev of setting four fires at the church between December 13 and December 28, the last of which destroyed the church. His tire slashing spree included the Tesla that captured the footage that led to his arrest. The footage captured on December 14 indicated that he had actually been attempting to remove the tires from the Tesla vehicle while it was parked near the church.
“The video footage from the Tesla shows Vulchev at a close distance crouching near the Tesla and using a tire iron to remove the wheels,” said FBI agent Casey Anderson in a statement entered into court records.
Tesla vehicles have an optional “Sentinel Mode” that acts as a vehicle security system on steroids and includes the capture of video footage that is often higher quality than that provided by the security footage taken by security cameras in many small businesses. The higher quality makes it possible for the Full Self-Driving software to see what is going on around the vehicle while it is driving. Tesla recently put out a call for more beta testers for Full Self-Driving, but the software shows signs of progressing toward a version that may be robust enough to bring out of beta and potentially even license to other automakers.
Sentinel Mode is meant to combat vehicle thefts, which can be especially helpful considering that Tesla recently had to patch a security flaw affecting the key fob that allows the owner to open and operate his or her vehicle. Footage from the cameras in vehicles with Sentinel Mode has also been instrumental in capturing vandals who specifically targeted Tesla vehicles.
In this case, the Department of Justice has evidence that Vulchev targeted African-Americans in his crimes. Officials found racist images and text on his personal devices that indicated a “hatred of Black people.”
Despite the vehicle cameras’ potential for helping to solve crimes like the attack on the African-American church, some people have expressed concern that the cameras could pose a risk to privacy. The interior cameras can capture footage of passengers of a Tesla vehicle, which may be undesirable at times.
Security experts have especially expressed concern that malicious actors could gain access to the footage that has been relayed from the cameras to servers owned by Tesla. As the hacktivist group APT-69420 Arson Cats recently demonstrated, it may be possible to exploit security flaws in a centralized security camera system to gain Super Admin access, which can grant the attackers access to sensitive security camera footage.
China has recently banned its government employees from bringing Tesla vehicles to its facilities due to concerns that the cameras could be used to collect sensitive information about activities at those facilities despite Tesla’s denial that the cameras function outside of North America.
Vulchev currently faces four counts of damage to religious property involving fire, which the Department of Justice classifies as a hate crime, and one count of using fire to commit a federal felony. If convicted, he faces a sentence of up to 30 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.