As part of the wider rollout of Tesla’s “full self-driving” option, which began earlier this month, drivers may forfeit some privacy protections around location sharing and in-car recordings that they previously had, according to Tesla owner’s manuals and its website. The apparent privacy changes hint at the tradeoffs Tesla requires of owners who wish to use “full self-driving.”
Previous versions of Tesla’s North American owners manual for the Model 3 and Model Y said that “to protect your privacy, cabin camera images and video clips transmitted to Tesla servers … are not associated with your Vehicle Identification Number.” (Tesla’s “cabin camera” films inside the vehicle to determine driver inattentiveness, according to Tesla, and must be uncovered for drivers to use “full self-driving.”)
But Tesla’s latest manuals for those vehicles delete the reference to protecting drivers’ privacy by not linking video clips to a vehicle identification number (VIN). While it’s not clear if Tesla is currently making such links, the change to the manuals leaves the door open for this possibility.
Tesla did not respond to requests for comment and generally does not engage with the professional news media.
Tesla’s apparent privacy rollbacks also extend to tracking where owners drive their vehicles.
Tesla’s privacy website says: “Your location history, is history. Where you go says a lot about you. Unless there is a serious safety concern like an accident, Tesla doesn’t associate your location with your account, or keep a history of where you’ve been.”
But Tesla introduced its “Safety Score” last month to assess drivers’ behavior and determine which drivers should receive “full self-driving” first. Tesla says on its website that it captures driving data from all trips, from when a vehicle is turned on to off. It’s not clear if this driving data includes drivers’ locations. Tesla’s scoring formula depends on data unique to each owner’s account, including how often they turn aggressively and brake hard.
It’s common for businesses to reassure customers that they don’t retain data, or they de-identify the data collected from the devices. Ford and General Motors, which use in-car cameras to monitor drivers of their “full self-driving” competitors, don’t retain in-car camera data, according to GM spokesman Darryll Harrison and Ford spokesman Michael Levine. Apple and Google say they store facial recognition data for smartphones directly on those devices. iRobot, which sells Roomba vacuums with cameras, says it deidentifies the data it collects about floorplans and types of objects in homes.
Tesla won’t be taking such measures with “full self-driving.” The automaker emailed its roughly 1,000 new “full self-driving” users this month and said “your vehicle has automatically opted into VIN associated telemetry sharing with Tesla, including Autopilot usage data, images and/or video,” according to a copy of the email viewed by CNN Business.
Tesla has said it expects to release “full self-driving” to more drivers soon. The driver-assist technology steers the car and speeds up and slows down, but requires an attentive human driver to take control if the technology makes a mistake. Some excited owners have raved about its abilities, while others have been frustrated with its flaws.
The software “may do the wrong thing at the worst time,” Tesla has cautioned owners who install “full self-driving,” so drivers must keep their eyes on the road.
Drivers are told if they don’t want “full self-driving” access they can email Tesla and say so. That suggests drivers who want “full self-driving” have no way to opt out of sharing their personal information. (Tesla also cautions in its privacy notice that if a driver opts out of data collection, the automaker will generally not be able to notify drivers of issues in real time, which may result in suffering from reduced functionality, serious damage or inoperability.)
The automaker continues to acknowledge privacy risks that come with tying data to a vehicle identification number in other contexts.
Tesla captures voice recordings in its vehicles, in order to improve the vehicles’ ability to recognize voice commands, the company says in its latest owners’ manuals. But Tesla says it doesn’t associate these recordings with a vehicle’s identification number to protect people’s privacy.
Privacy experts have long cautioned that location data is extremely sensitive because of the potential to track people’s movements.
Caitlin Cottrill, who researches technology and transportation data at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, said that Tesla consumers could use more of an explanation of the privacy implications of opting in to “full self-driving.”
“I would expect more information on how VIN-associated data will be shared with others,” said Cottrill, noting that Tesla’s privacy notice describes sharing information with third parties. “Currently, there’s not much detail.”
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