Consumer Reports Worried Tesla Could Spy on Customers

Consumer Reports has taken umbrage with Tesla’s new cabin camera designed to monitor the driver by suggesting there might be some privacy concerns. While that sounds like the understatement of the year, we’ve seen other companies (e.g. Cadillac) deploy similar devices with little pushback. Uncoverable lenses on our laptops and phones are creepy enough. When the auto industry starts affixing driver-monitoring cameras to the dashboards of automobiles, you have to sit back and ask yourself how much longer you’re willing to be a party to the prologue for George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. 

Trapped like a dog inside the hot car of progress, we’ve been attempting to honk the horn until someone pays attention. Mercifully, Consumer Reports doesn’t seem to have forgotten its roots in consumer advocacy and is walking up to our window with a rock. It’s demanding more privacy protection for vehicle operators, and not just from a single automaker. 

As the industry digs itself deeper into self-driving and advanced aids, it’s confronting a liability problem. New safety systems, designed to take control away from the driver, are continuously being mistaken for foolproof. You probably even know someone who thinks Teslas are actually capable of driving themselves, even though they aren’t. Testing has also shown that advanced driving aids from across the industry have massive gaps in performance and should never be counted on as your first line of defense. Car companies need a way to put the onus back on the driver, who they previously convinced is inside of a vehicle that can basically drive itself.

This is essentially the cabin camera’s entire reason for being. By tracking the facial movement of the vehicle operator (often in infrared), the car can have a sense of how invested in they invested they are. Someone who can’t manage to take control of the wheel or keep their eyes on the road ahead will be met with warnings that they need to take control. Those that fail to heed them will find the car taking itself out of whatever autonomous-adjacent feature the manufacturer has dreamed up. But it also allows the company to point the finger right at the driver if one of their safety nets break. After all, they were supposed to be paying attention while the car did as much of the work for them as modern technology allows.

But the Tesla system is slightly more unsettling. Most of the driver-facing cameras we’re aware of don’t transmit back to the manufacturer or even store recording locally. Tesla’s is different.

From CR:

Tesla’s driver-facing camera located above the rearview mirror in Model 3 and Model Y vehicles—which the automaker calls a “cabin camera”—is turned off by default. If drivers enable the cabin camera, Tesla says it will capture and share a video clip of the moments before a crash or automatic emergency braking (AEB) activation to help the automaker “develop future safety features and software enhancements,” according to Tesla’s website. Tesla did not respond to CR’s emailed request for additional information about its in-car monitoring systems.

Tesla’s approach stands in contrast to so-called closed-loop setups used by other automakers, such as BMW, Ford, GM, and Subaru, who told CR that their driver monitoring systems do not record, save, or transmit data or video. […] Instead of capturing video, these systems use infrared technology to identify a driver’s eye movements or head position. 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.

It wasn’t more than a few days ago when we were reporting the Chinese military’s apprehensiveness toward bringing Tesla vehicles onto base. Consumers are probably similarly annoyed that the car could theoretically be used to capture some heavy nose picking. But what else were you going to do while Autopilot covers the highway portions of the commute.

Your author has long felt the entire conversation around automotive mobility has been fundamentally backward. Every evolution seems customized to remove driver agency, while also invading their privacy so the manufacturer can gorge itself on data. Driving-facing cameras seem a primo example — even cameras using closed-loop setups. How long until the government demands access to cameras under the auspices of public safety or the industry feels the public outrage will be small enough to soften its (nonbinding) privacy agreements? Look what companies like Google and Facebook are doing and try to tell yourself the automotive sector will do better.

“Any time video is being recorded, it can be accessed later,” said Davisson.

“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,” he continued, adding that digital criminals could also access the footage and Tesla was under no obligation to use it exclusively for research.

Here’s where things start getting incredibly creepy. Europe and China have both been advocating for cabin-watching cameras. The EU’s New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) even calls for the inclusion of occupant monitoring and has been very supportive of advanced driving systems. Some forms of monitoring will be mandatory for NCAP by 2023, however the group has gone back and forth on privacy protections. While the EU wants drivers tracked in real time, it seems to understand that people might not appreciate being watched inside their own car. China is substantially less concerned with this and has already built government-backed centers that monitor the whereabouts of newer vehicles 24/7.

Meanwhile, the industry is still flummoxed as to how to ensure drivers are fully attentive while driving. We would suggest it isn’t any of their business since they’re just selling the car, adding that overselling the capabilities of advanced driving aids is what ultimately caused this problem. Risking our collective privacy for advanced cruise control systems that can be confounded by a little snow or wonky road markings hardly seems a fair trade. Consumer Reports seem well aware of the blame game the industry is trying to play, faulting Tesla more than the rest. But just the nature of these cameras existing seems like they’re all operating on an ugly spectrum. Opting out of having your face recorded may not always be an option and many customers will go into new vehicle purchases totally unaware of the amount of privacy they’re sacrificing.

“I think there’s reason to distrust that this is the whole intended purpose of the system on Tesla’s part,” Davisson suggested. “It may later be repurposed for a system that is designed to track the behaviors of the driver, potentially for other business purposes.”

The group believes stronger consumer protections need to be in place and has started calling for regulation and referenced a California proposal that would make it illegal for companies to share in-vehicle footage with third parties or use it for marketing purposes. There would also be heavy restrictions on the transmission of that data, likely requiring the written consent of the owner.

“Advanced features in cars can bring consumers enormous benefits, but it’s important for our laws to make sure that automakers put people ahead of their bottom line. Automotive innovation must come hand-in-hand with strong and sensible consumer protections,” stated William Wallace, manager of safety policy at Consumer Reports.

We’re slightly more skeptical of any legislation maintaining those protections, however, and would rather see onboard cameras smashed and swept into the dustbin of automotive history. If that means losing few advanced driving aids until they can be made more reliable, all the better.

[Image: Tesla]

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