By on March 24, 2021

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 they are. Someone who can’t manage to hold onto 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 some wonky road markings hardly seems a fair trade. Consumer Reports seems 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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47 Comments on “Consumer Reports Worried Tesla Could Spy on Customers...”


  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Only one solution: wear the Gay Fawkes mask while driving.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      People aren’t already doing that?

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        They may be too busy trying to find cute girls to do the “watch this girl’s face go orgasmic when I do Ridiculous Mode in my Model S” videos. It’s a thing.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        Take the high-tech route. Mount a digital camera electronic viewfinder-sized screen in front of the camera lens, then get a second camera, point it at yourself, and insert a filter into the stream. Maybe the “cat lawyer” filter.

        Everyone forgets about all of the other cameras perfectly capable of tracking you even if you’re driving a 62 Falcon. Look at how they found the Boston Bombers and the Capitol insurrectionists.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          That’s why they want everyone in urban areas, cheaper and easier than drones.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            Who are “they?”

          • 0 avatar
            mcs

            “Who are “they?””

            From what I gather, they are cannibals that want to turn kids into pizza with space lasers. Or something like that.

          • 0 avatar
            stuki

            “They”, generally refers to “those who benefit, or at a minimum believe they benefit, from ever increasing totalitarianism, hence support it.”

            “They” are never intended to refer to some individually enumerated cabal of named, or even unnamed, individuals. But instead, effectively just the union of 1)those in on the rackets, and 2)those dumb and naive enough to believe governments bigger and more intrusive then Jefferson’s, are some sort of useful and beneficial institutions.

          • 0 avatar
            ajla

            “those dumb and naive enough to believe governments bigger and more intrusive”

            The government isn’t the one forcing GM to sell your data to Pizza Hut or forcing BMW to monitor you at all times or forcing Tesla to put a literal cabin camera in your car.

            If anything it is the lack of government oversight that is allowing these corporations to turn their customer’s privacy into revenue streams with almost no recourse for buyers aside from driving an ’02 Regal.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            Bingo, ajla.

  • avatar
    rvakenya

    GM sells your information by using OnStar. There was an article on here a while back about it. I can’t imagine Tesla would let a profit opportunity like that pass it by but they seem to care more about privacy than others. You should get a check box when you setup your car that lets you refuse to share information, just like every other software interface. Disconnecting the OnStar antenna also works but it is a pain to take apart your dash.

  • avatar
    285exp

    It sounds like the real purpose of the camera is so they can prove whether or not the driver was paying attention immediately prior to any accident rather than trying to ensure they do pay attention. And they make you turn it on yourself, so you can’t complain when they use it against you. Clever.

  • avatar
    ajla

    “It’s demanding more privacy protection for vehicle operators, and not just from a single automaker.”

    CR could refuse to recommend any vehicle from a manufacturer that doesn’t offer a legally-binding full opt out on data mining and occupant monitoring.

    • 0 avatar
      Old_WRX

      ajla,

      “CR could refuse to recommend any vehicle from a manufacturer that doesn’t offer a legally-binding full opt out on data mining and occupant monitoring.”

      That would leave us taking public trans.

      Oops, that’s right, they have cameras, too.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Agreed – good article.

    FWIW, though, many cars already have rolling data recorders that can play back the last seconds before a crash, much like the CVR or FDR from an aircraft. Adding a camera raises the creepy score, but they already know what you’re doing (or not doing) with the vehicle controls.

    BTW, if enabling the Tesla camera is optional, then the driver waives his right to privacy when he enables it.

  • avatar
    aja8888

    If the camera bothers someone, put a piece of black tape over the lens.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      But is that the *real* lens? /s

    • 0 avatar
      Old_WRX

      Sounds like a business opportunity for someone — selling designers adhesive dots to cover all those snoopy/creepy camera lenses. The microphones are a bit more difficult to block.

    • 0 avatar
      RHD

      That’s exactly what I was going to post!

      Good thing I’m not in the market for a Tesla. I know people who own them, and they tend to love them. Great idea, not a great execution.

      The advantages of staying as analog as possible are increasing every day.

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    Consumer Reports is fussing about Tesla. Did they complain about OnStar and the gadgets some insurance companies (e.g. Progressive) want to plug into your OBD2 port to monitor your driving?

    I’m toying with buying a replacement for my thirteen-year-old Infiniti coupe. My first question for the salesman will be, “How do I turn this driver assist $#!% off?”

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      CR always seems to chide Tesla before any other automaker. But it absolutely should come down hard against insurance companies and automakers that have crossed the privacy line. GM would be an outstanding place to start.

  • avatar

    From now on when I am in the car I will make happy face and hail Bureau of Land Management and praise the results of residential derelictions.

    • 0 avatar
      Old_WRX

      ILO,

      “From now on when I am in the car I will make happy face and hail Bureau of Land Management and praise the results of residential derelictions.”

      It is also very important to think transgender thoughts; and, if you are from the Caucasus or have an impure “Y” in you chromosomes it is crucial that you self flagellate. I am telling you this strictly for your own good (FYOG).

  • avatar
    sgeffe

    I can’t believe that CR is bitching about this, given their slant towards the crowd which would welcome intrusions of privacy and loss of freedom, as well as wanting us all on bicycles or other non-“polluting” conveyances such as glorified golf carts, in the guise of “saving” something that’ll be here long after we’ve nuked ourselves!

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Wow, lots of assumptions there but I suppose the one that stands out for me is this: you seem to think the only people who do product research are the ones you seem to disagree with politically.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        I’ve said before that data ownership and digital privacy laws should be easy to get bipartisan support for but the national legislature seems wholly uninterested in bringing it up at all while California is the only state that has moved anything forward.

      • 0 avatar
        redapple

        FREED:

        Sgeffe is talking about CR. Not GM FORD TESLA ET AL R and D
        I ve subscribed to CR for 10 years. They do lean a certain direction. Letters to the editor show the same inclination.

        sgeffe point is valid.

        • 0 avatar
          FreedMike

          So…the people who write letters to the editor of CR “lean a certain way.” What is the problem there?

          And why would anyone assume that people who “lean” a certain way want us to give up our freedom?

          Sorry, that’s nonsense.

        • 0 avatar
          ajla

          I don’t think there’s anything about being an environmentalist that per se would endear them to data mining, camera monitoring, and additional marketing.

          I believe outside of corporate executives there is only a subset of technocrats that would really be in vocal support of all this.

  • avatar
    Ol Shel

    Uh, Jack Traven solved this problem 27 years ago.

  • avatar
    WalterRohrl

    When you say “We” and “We’ve” throughout this post, does that make this an editorial signed by the entire masthead of the site? You, Tim, Murilee, Jason, etc… Or is this a Matt Posky position? I’m genuinely curious.

    Doesn’t the whole argument against Tesla clandestinely watching you in the car fall apart when the first sentence quoted from CR literally says “It is turned off by default”?

    Why is a car potentially having a camera so intrusive and unacceptable when you are likely already staring into your phone and camera equipped laptop 8-10 hours a day already? Isn’t it the same thing as how a cell phone can easily be tracked since nobody every leaves theirs behind anywhere but if a car can be tracked by the toll reader it’s a crime against humanity? Do you guys all wrap your phones in foil unless using actively calling someone? Or is it all payphones, all the time now? :-)

    Facebook, Google, and Amazon (for starters) likely know far more about you and your habits than any car ever will, it’s no coincidence that an ad pops up for whatever you were talking about soon after the conversation ends even if the device wasn’t being used at that instance…

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      It is intrusive and unacceptable when other companies do it too, but we are on a car website so what automakers plan to do (rightly) dominates the conversation.

      I don’t see any virtue to accepting further intrusions just because Amazon also exists. If you’re fine with increased automotive data mining and monitoring then that’s your call, but there should be an enforceable opt-out available for people that aren’t.

      • 0 avatar
        WalterRohrl

        Oh come on. The biggest societal problem with cars currently are the distractions of cell phones in the first place so there’s your “car-related content”, but alright, back to the main subject:

        There already are two easy options:

        1. Don’t turn it on. It’s off by default according to the author’s quoted source.
        2. Don’t buy the car and let the automaker know the reason why. If enough feel that way, it’ll change. If not, well, it’s not your problem since you bought something else without it.
        3. Some people probably want it. Perhaps more than don’t, who knows. The same way that some people have and use a dash-cam to protect themselves in case of an accident. An accident that if the officer sees the dashcam can just as likely subpoena or impound it and it could as easily incriminate the user instead of whoever the accident was with.

        • 0 avatar
          ajla

          1. I’d like to see some independent verification of that. Also, there are automotive data mining topics beyond just the Tesla camera that aren’t “off by default”.

          2. That’s what I’ll be doing for now. However, I’m also going to throw a minor amount of effort behind supporting government intervention in the form of stronger data ownership and privacy laws.

          3. Maybe, but that’s their call. I don’t want it to be *outlawed* I just want there to be an enforceable and complete opt-out available. I think people should have more options to maintain privacy beyond needing to move to the woods and drop out of society.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      I see you’re starting to understand the larger problem. If this website were about phones or tracking tech companies, they would be getting the same treatment. In fact, they often do already. You noticing that we’ve already screwed up our privacy rights would make me believe you’d be more interested in solving the problem.

      Maybe ask the rest of the team how they feel about such issues. In the meantime, you can treat it as the royal we.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        Better known as the “editorial ‘we\'”.

      • 0 avatar
        WalterRohrl

        What privacy rights? Half the electorate wants to control what happens inside your bedroom and with whom. Or what a woman decides what to do with her body.

        Where does it say you are intrinsically entitled to privacy as regards an item that you purchase with your own money and have the choice of whether or not to do so? Now if you are talking cameras on the public street trained on your home that’s a different story, blast that drone out of the airspace above your land. Otherwise just vote with your wallet but be sure the person that does not get your business knows exactly why not.

        Technically, you and TTAC are part of the larger problem. Your own website tracks the visitors that come to it and their habits. I’d suggest you clean up your own house first as regards setting cookies and trackers but yeah, I understand, that’s different, right? How do you justify working for someone that apparently IS part of the problem? Stones, glass houses, etc.

        I did sort of ask the team in my original post where they stood. You are the only one that answered so far, thank you for clarifying that the “we” you wrote is really “I” so far. (which is fine, just wanted the clarification, after all it’s up to me as to where I spend my click dollars too.)

        There’s also the concept of personal responsibility. If I decide to take a nap while on Autopilot or whatever and the car crashes when I was aware that it could (and really, who at this point isn’t aware of that), then I should take the responsibility for those actions instead of trying to blame the manufacturer. As you stated by quoting CR, Tesla seems to have made it an “opt-in”, ie it is off unless you, the user, turns it on. I assume you checked those facts or more likely assumed that CR did so. They didn’t seem to see anything nefarious beyond the fact that the user could turn it on and end up incriminating themselves, but again, user choice and an “opt-in” is always a better option than an “opt-out”. A piece of black tape works wonders too for those overly paranoid.

        • 0 avatar
          ajla

          “Where does it say you are intrinsically entitled to privacy as regards an item that you purchase with your own money and have the choice of whether or not to do so?”

          That’s what the new law would be for. It would give purchasers ownership of their data and other privacy rights. Some of these laws already exist in California.
          Your solution of “if you don’t want to be tracked by corporations then don’t buy a car built in the last decade or use a cellular phone or the internet” isn’t satisfactory.

          • 0 avatar
            WalterRohrl

            I’m not disagreeing with that, I’m questioning Mr. Posky’s stance that the tech should be removed entirely if the status quo remains and if it stifles other progress, then so be it. See his last paragraph in the post.

            But since on that subject how does TTAC feel about not collecting or using its own user’s data? Seems like if they (we?) felt so strongly about privacy protections they could implement that on this site without waiting for legislation, no? Lead by example etc.

        • 0 avatar
          RHD

          Actually, 80% of Americans support a woman’s right to an abortion. That’s much more than half.

  • avatar
    07NodnarB

    CR is a day late and a dollar short in regards to being worried about that…of course Tesla spies, if the buyer/renter of said Tesla does not want to be on candid camera, over the things up!

  • avatar
    mcs

    Here’s part of the reason: https://www.tesla.com/insurance

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      Tesla Master Plan: Give away the cars, make money on the insurance, body repair, power distribution, charging/fuel, finance…

      The insurance thing is kind of brilliant if they own the autobody repair shops. They control the cost of repairability with the car’s original design. No markup on parts. Paint is bought in bulk at the scale of an auto manufacturer.

      The power distribution business is estimated to become bigger than their car business. Selling fuel for cars is big business too. If you want to make money selling electricity, then give away something that uses a lot of it. Sort of like the printer companies giving away inkjet printers to sell the more profitable ink refills.

      https://electrek.co/2018/09/11/tesla-in-house-body-repair-centers-reduce-repair-time/

      For anyone wondering why Tesla stock is so high, you need to pull back and see the big picture of what they are doing.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        I get the finance and power distribution ideas but if factory-owned insurance and repair shops were great profit centers why hasn’t any automaker gone for it in the past?

        • 0 avatar
          mcs

          “why hasn’t any automaker gone for it in the past?”

          because they aren’t run by a madman. Probably anti-trust which I’m sure will come into play at some point. The dealerships have had their own body shops for a while, so in that respect, it isn’t new. They also had extended mechanical warranties and this is sort of an extended warranty on the body and paint with the rates set by your driving behavior.

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