Tesla owners can purchase the company’s “full self-driving” software for $10,000, but they may have to give up their privacy in the process.
According to Tesla owner’s manuals and its website, as part of the larger rollout of Tesla’s “full self-driving” option, which began earlier this month, drivers may lose some privacy protections around location sharing and in-car recordings that they previously had. The visible privacy changes hint at the tradeoffs Tesla expects from owners who want to use “full self-driving.”
Previously, Tesla’s North American owners manual for the Model 3 and Model Y stated that “to protect your privacy, cabin camera images and video clips transmitted to Tesla servers… … are not associated with your Vehicle Identification Number.”
However, the reference to protecting drivers’ privacy by not linking video clips to a vehicle identification number has been removed from Tesla’s latest manuals for those vehicles (VIN). While it’s unclear whether Tesla is currently making such connections, the change to the manuals opens the door to the possibility.
Tesla’s apparent privacy retreats include tracking where owners drive their vehicles.
According to Tesla’s privacy website: “Your location history is a thing of the past. What you do reveals a lot about you. Tesla does not associate your location with your account or keep a history of where you’ve been unless there is a serious safety concern, such as an accident.”
Tesla, on the other hand, launched its “Safety Score” last month to assess driver behavior and determine which drivers should receive “full self-driving” first. Tesla claims on its website that it collects driving data from all trips, from the time a vehicle is turned on to the time it is turned off. It’s unclear whether this driving data includes the drivers’ locations. Tesla’s scoring formula is based on data specific to each owner’s account, such as how frequently they turn aggressively and brake hard.
Businesses frequently reassure customers that they do not retain data or that the data collected from devices is de-identified. According to GM spokesman Darryll Harrison and Ford spokesman Michael Levine, Ford and General Motors, which use in-car cameras to monitor drivers of their “full self-driving” competitors, do not retain in-car camera data. According to Apple and Google, facial recognition data for smartphones is stored directly on the devices. iRobot, which sells Roomba vacuums with cameras, claims to deidentify the data it collects about home floorplans and object types.
Tesla will not take such precautions with “full self-driving.” According to a copy of the email, 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.”
Tesla has stated that it plans to make “full self-driving” available to more drivers in the near future. The driver-assist technology steers the car, accelerates and decelerates, but if the technology makes a mistake, an attentive human driver must take over. Some ecstatic owners have gushed about its capabilities, while others have been irritated by its flaws. Tesla has warned owners who install “full self-driving” that the software “may do the wrong thing at the worst time,” so drivers must keep their eyes on the road.
Drivers are told that if they do not want “full self-driving” access, they can email Tesla and express their dissatisfaction. Drivers who want “full self-driving” have no way to opt out of sharing their personal information, according to this.
In other contexts, the automaker continues to acknowledge the privacy risks associated with tying data to a vehicle identification number.
Tesla captures voice recordings in its vehicles to improve the vehicles’ ability to recognize voice commands, according to the company’s most recent owners’ manuals. To protect people’s privacy, Tesla says it does not associate these recordings with a vehicle’s identification number.
Because of the potential to track people’s movements, privacy experts have long warned that location data is extremely sensitive.
Caitlin Cottrill, a technology and transportation data researcher at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, believes Tesla customers could benefit from a better 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,” Cottrill said, pointing out that Tesla’s privacy notice mentions sharing information with third parties. “Currently, there’s not much detail.”