Former Tesla employees are confessing to having shared, laughed at, played back in slow motion, and just generally had a great time watching the videos that were taken with customers’ in-vehicle cameras. Reuters reports that close to a dozen former employees have revealed that sharing drivers’ personal videos was one of their favorite pastimes at the office—a good way to stave off boredom and to keep their co-workers entertained.
As it turns out, one particular class of Tesla worker—what’s known as a “data labeler”—is tasked with watching these in-vehicle videos. Labelers watch the videos to help the company’s AI systems better identify particular objects that appear in them. The labelers haven’t just been passively viewing customer videos, however. To “break the monotony,” as one former employee put it, they also made a habit of sharing the most entertaining ones with colleagues via Slack-like internal messaging systems, Reuters writes.
“If you saw something cool that would get a reaction, you post it, right, and then later, on break, people would come up to you and say, ‘Oh, I saw what you posted. That was funny,’” one former staffer told the news outlet. “People who got promoted to lead positions shared a lot of these funny items and gained notoriety for being funny.”
What kind of videos would employees share? Former staffers remember stuff like “dogs, interesting cars, and clips of people recorded by Tesla cameras tripping and falling” all being big hits. In one popular video, the car’s owner—a man—approached the vehicle totally naked. In another instance, employees enthusiastically shared a video of a child on a bike getting hit by a car (the child and the bike “flew” in opposite directions, former employees said). Still another category of entertainment apparently involved crashes and road rage incidents. If Tesla owners’ had something funny or interesting stashed in their garage, those items would also typically end up being the subject of office banter.
“We could see inside people’s garages and their private properties,” a former employee told Reuters. “Let’s say that a Tesla customer had something in their garage that was distinctive, you know, people would post those kinds of things.”
One office in particular, located in San Mateo, reportedly had a “free-wheeling” atmosphere, where employees would share videos and images with wild abandon. These pics or vids would often be “marked-up” via Adobe photoshop, former employees said, converting drivers’ personal experiences into memes that would circulate throughout the office.
“The people who buy the car, I don’t think they know that their privacy is, like, not respected,” one former employee was quoted as saying. “We could see them doing laundry and really intimate things. We could see their kids.”
Another former employee seemed to admit that all of this was very uncool: “It was a breach of privacy, to be honest. And I always joked that I would never buy a Tesla after seeing how they treated some of these people,” the employee told the news outlet. Yes, it’s always a vote of confidence when a company’s own employees won’t use the products that they sell.
Privacy concerns related to Tesla’s data-guzzling autos aren’t exactly new. Back in 2021, the Chinese government formally banned the vehicles on the premises of certain military installations, calling the company a “national security” threat. The Chinese were worried that the cars’ sensors and cameras could be used to funnel data out of China and back to the U.S. for the purposes of espionage. Beijing seems to have been on to something—although it might be the case that the spying threat comes less from America’s spooks than it does from bored slackers back at Tesla HQ.
One of the reasons that Tesla’s cameras seem so creepy is that you can never really tell if they’re on or not. A couple of years ago, a stationary Tesla helped catch a suspect in a Massachusetts hate crime, when its security system captured images of the man slashing tires in the parking lot of a predominantly Black church. The man was later arrested on the basis of the photos.
Reuters notes that it wasn’t ultimately “able to determine if the practice of sharing recordings, which occurred within some parts of Tesla as recently as last year, continues today or how widespread it was.”
With all this in mind, you might as well always assume that your Tesla is watching, right? And, now that Reuters’ story has come out, you should also probably assume that some bored coder is also watching—potentially in the hopes of converting your dopiest in-car moment into a meme.