In the category of news that is both good but also unsettling: Authorities say a Tesla’s security system recently helped them catch the culprit behind a string of hate crimes.
Throughout December, someone was setting fires at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Presbyterian Church, a “predominately Black” congregation located in Springfield, Massachusetts. An FBI affidavit claims that the last of these fires, set on Dec. 28, “essentially destroyed” the building—burning away large parts of the interior. During this period, the same person is suspected of having carried out a “series of tire-slashings” targeted at vehicles near or around the church—a majority of which were owned by Black individuals.
Now, 44-year-old Maine resident Dushko Vulchev has been arrested in connection to the crimes. He was charged in a federal court in Springfield on Thursday, a release from the U.S. Justice Department shows, and is potentially facing decades behind bars.
Court documents illustrate how state, local and federal authorities used a variety of surveillance footage and data collection to piece together Vulchev’s whereabouts and place him at or near these crimes. In particular, the vandal slipped up when he allegedly slashed the tires of a Tesla located not far from the church. Authorities say one of the car’s many pre-installed security cameras caught blatant images of the culprit as he damaged the tires, then later returned to steal them along with the vehicle’s rims.
Smile dude, you’re on camera!
“Based on my training and experience and this investigation, I am aware that the Tesla mentioned above is equipped with cameras at various points around the body,” said the FBI agent who wrote the affidavit. “I have reviewed video footage retrieved from the Tesla showing an individual that I can identify as Vulchev...The video footage from the Tesla shows Vulchev at a close distance crouching near the Tesla and using a tire iron to remove the wheels.”
Using other data collected and a variety of local surveillance footage (Springfield is a heavily surveilled city), law enforcement was able to build a case against Vulchev. Upon searching the suspect’s personal devices, the feds also discovered “messages from Vulchev demonstrating Vulchev’s hatred of Black people, including recent messages from Vulchev in December 2020 calling to “eliminate all N****S,” the Justice Department says. He now faces four counts of damage to religious property involving fire and one count of use of fire to commit a federal felony and could spend many years in prison if convicted.
Yes, much has been said lately about the in-car monitoring systems in Tesla vehicles and the privacy risks they pose. As this case shows, the cars come with a pretty comprehensive array of pre-installed cameras—and those cameras often record and store video and share it with Tesla. A recent analysis published by Consumer Reports claimed that “the way Tesla is using an in-car camera underscores the need for stronger rules to protect consumers’ safety and privacy in cars” and that Tesla differed from other automakers because of its more intensive data-collection practices. The cars were even partially banned in China recently after the government decided the vehicle’s surveillance systems made them a threat to national security.
So, yeah, they’re creepy. But, on the other hand, they also seem to be able to help catch criminals. Such is the weird, double-edged sword of the surveillance dystopia in which we all now live: What you sacrifice in privacy may be paid back in safety.