It’s not Just Tesla Spying on You…

On April 6, we learned that from 2019 to 2022, Tesla employees shared between themselves intimate photos and videos recorded by up to nine cameras installed outside – and inside – Tesla vehicles. According to reports from Tesla employees, they could view the inside of customers’ homes and garages. In one case, Tesla captured images of a naked man in his own home.

The next day, a man named Henry Yeh, who drives a 2022 Tesla Model Y, filed a class action lawsuit in a US District Court in California against Tesla. This model includes a camera inside the car aimed at the driver. The camera allegedly is used to monitor inattentive drivers. Even Teslas without cameras inside them are equipped with up to eight exterior cameras to guide the vehicle in Autopilot mode.

And to give customers reassurance that this information is “private,” Tesla claims:

By default, images and video from the camera do not leave the vehicle itself and are not transmitted to anyone, including Tesla, unless you enable data sharing.

If you do enable data sharing:

Model Y shares short cabin camera video clips with Tesla to help us develop future safety enhancements and continuously improve the intelligence of features that rely on the cabin camera.

Yeh alleges that Tesla has not abided by its promises and is suing for “intrusion of seclusion” on behalf of all Tesla owners.

Now, we agree that Tesla’s conduct in this matter is reprehensible. But if you think vehicle surveillance is limited to Tesla, you’re sadly mistaken.

First, it’s a misnomer to say that you “own” a modern vehicle. Your vehicle comes equipped with a central processing unit orchestrating the operation of a network of sensors and controllers, without which it won’t function. And the software running this network is the intellectual property of the vehicle manufacturer or licensed to the manufacturer. The vehicle’s emission control software, infotainment system, etc. are all licensed to you. You only have the right to use these systems, analogous to your right to use licensed software on your PC.

If you truly want to “own” a vehicle in the traditional sense, you’ll need to find one made before such controls came into widespread use. For instance, the first electronic control unit used in a production automobile was an electronic spark timing device installed in the 1977 General Motors Oldsmobile Toronado. Today, luxury cars contain 150 or more microprocessor-based electronic control units (ECUs). Lower-end vehicles might only have 100 or so ECUs.

We suspect that Tesla will use these facts to help defend itself in the lawsuit Yeh filed against it. For instance, Tesla could argue that neither Yeh nor any other Tesla owner have the right to sue the company, since they don’t actually own any of the systems allegedly spying on them.

But that’s just the beginning of the vehicle surveillance network that’s evolved in recent decades, thanks to the business model of “surveillance capitalism.”

A great example of this business model are companies that aggregate data collected by vehicles and then sell it to the highest bidder. One such firm is The Ulysses Group, which promotes a technology claiming it can find the current location of nearly every car on the planet. “Currently, we can access over 15 billion vehicle locations around the world every month,” the company claims. It says this is possible due to the data cars themselves collect and transmit to the manufacturer or a third party (such as Google Maps).

You don’t own this data, so it can be used for any purpose that generates profits. One potential client is the US military, which has previously purchased other Ulysses technology.

Your auto insurance company is spying on you too if you opt in to allowing your vehicle to be tracked in exchange for a lower policy premium. This is accomplished by plugging in a device into the vehicle’s diagnostic port that tracks your driving patterns. The device assigns you a “performance rating” based on your driving habits. If you drive “safely,” your premium declines. But if you drive too fast, brake too abruptly, or drive at the wrong time of day (late at night), your premium increases.

Yet you might not have noticed language like this in the disclosure statement for your auto insurance policy:

Data may be disclosed to third parties… and used in an accident investigation… You should not expect to retain any privacy or confidentiality related to your use of the application.

But you don’t need to install a tracking device in your vehicle for it to be tracked. You probably carry one with you in your pocket – your smartphone. Your smartphone mobile carrier has the built-in capacity to track its movements and sell that data to anyone they choose. You don’t own this data – they do. And don’t forget that many companies track you on your smartphone even if you’re not using their apps (e.g., Google).

Your smartphone also contains a camera and a microphone. Many apps containing spyware can secretly activate them, converting your smartphone into a wiretapping device. 

It also turns out that the internet-connected systems in modern vehicles are notoriously insecure. For instance, if you pair your smartphone to your vehicle’s infotainment system, much of the data on it gets transferred to that system. Once it’s there, it can easily be retrieved by anyone with the technical smarts to do it. Court documents and government contracting records show that federal agencies routinely extract this data without a warrant. Indeed, cops can extract data from 10,000 different car models’ infotainment systems.

So, let’s say you buy a pre-1977 vehicle, opt out of having it tracked, and throw out your cellphone. Are you now free of vehicle surveillance?

Not a chance. Over the past few years, surveillance capitalists have installed networks of privately-owned cameras nationwide that investigators can tap into to locate any vehicle in the country. Using only your vehicle’s license plate number, they can retrieve every time it’s been photographed, sometimes going back years.

Consider an obscure company called DRN Data. According to its home page:

DRN’s national fleet of affiliates utilizes vehicle-mounted AI cameras to capture publicly available license plate data in markets nationwide. Our best-in-class cameras ensure unparalleled accuracy and precision, providing you with reliable and actionable insights.

DRN’s primary focus is recovering lost, stolen, or repossessed vehicles. But it can sell the data to anyone it chooses.

We’ll be the first to admit that we don’t have a solution to this mess, short of never venturing out of your home. (And you’re being spied on there, too.)

New laws might slow down the surveillance capitalists, but there’s only one way to limit their unfettered use of our personal information. And that’s to establish an ownership right to our own data, including where we drive, and forbidding use of it without our permission. Most people would probably opt into certain forms of data sharing, especially if they received a benefit or were paid for its use. Individuals like me who worry about the implications of uncontrolled data sharing could opt out.

Frankly, we don’t see this ever happening, because law enforcement and the surveillance capitalists themselves would howl if such a proposal somehow came to a vote in Congress. (And don’t forget that the surveillance capitalists make lavish campaign contributions so that their gravy train will continue.) Otherwise, all you can do is opt out of as many forms of surveillance as you can – and put a piece of tape over any cameras in your vehicle.

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