Tesla knows where you drove last winter -- and a lot more

Company data logs reveal how Times reporter John Broder drove the Tesla Model S, and even more about how easily cars can snoop on you.

The hubbub over a New York Times review of the Tesla Model S has been bouncing around the InterWebs in unexpected ways. Reporters, bloggers, and readers are now clawing at each other, debating whether the Times’ John Broder deliberately published a fake review in an attempt to kill the car. (A completely ludicrous idea, in my opinion, but one you’ll find repeated all over the Web.)

Among other things, that review prompted Tesla CEO Elon Musk to publish excerpts from data logs the company kept on the car. Musk was trying to show that Broder was lying. What he ended up doing, though, was demonstrating how thoroughly Tesla can snoop on the driving activities of its customers, if it chooses to.

tesla speed and location 550p.png
Source: Tesla Motors

What can Tesla learn about you? From the log snapshots posted by Musk, it’s pretty clear Tesla knows

* The precise speed and location of the vehicle at all times

* Whether the driver was using cruise control

* The amount of charge it has at any time

* The amount of time spent at the charging station with the vehicle plugged in

* When the driver ran the heater and, if so, at what temperature

As Forbes blogger David Vinjamuri puts it, “my biggest takeaway was ‘the frickin’ car company knows when I’m running the heater?’ That’s a bigger story than the bad review.”

And if Tesla knows when you’re running the heater, it’s a safe bet they know everything else you’re doing via the Model S’s 17-inch tablet-style dashboard.

In an interview with CNBC shortly after the review appeared, Musk explained:

“Whenever we do media test drives we always turn on detailed vehicle logging. This is not something that is turned on for customers unless we get their explicit written permission. So I want to be clear, we’re very sensitive to privacy and we don’t do this with any customer cars unless they give us explicit literally written permission with a signature.”

What Musk did not address was whether this kind of logging could be secretly turned on for a Tesla vehicle if, say, the cops showed up with a warrant for it. Pretty much every privacy policy on the planet carves out an exception for this kind of request, for obvious reasons, but how the companies respond to them varies. (For example, Google says it will turn over customer data for a warrant but not for a subpoena, which requires far less judicial oversight.)

What also varies is how much data is collected, how long it’s retained, and whether it’s tied to the vehicle identification number, the identity of the car’s owner, or other personal information. Tesla’s Web site completely fails to address these issues. I’ve sent an email to the company; I’ll update this post if they respond.

Why is this important? Even if you have no plans to buy a $101,000 Tesla Model S, the next new car you buy may have a similar ‘black box’ event data recorder built in. Last December, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed new rules requiring all new cars to ship with an EDR (black box) inside.

The primary argument for this is safety; a black box can determine the cause of crashes and offer valuable data on how to build safer cars. But it can be used just as easily to snoop on you – making your insurance rates dependent on how good a driver you are, for example. Progressive Insurance is already doing that in 39 states. Its Snapshot device doesn’t record vehicle location or speed, but the technology to do that is cheap and easily available.

These EDRs are mostly after-the-crash devices, but that doesn’t mean they have to be. There are plenty of cheap aftermarket gizmos that can track your car’s speed, location, time of day, and risky behaviors such as slamming the brakes, skidding around corners, or stomping on the accelerator – and upload all of that data to a Web page. I have one installed on my 16-year-old son’s car right now, to keep a watchful eye on his driving. (For the record, he’s a better driver than I am.)  If it’s this easy for me to get at this data, what’s to stop the cops?

Once the authorities routinely gain access to the moment-by-moment record of my driving, the next folks who’ll ask for it are the DMV, followed by insurance companies,  divorce attorneys, and anyone else who feels like suing me. That’s how it’s gone with things like FastPass data; why should EDR data be any different?

Before long we won’t need traffic cops on motorbikes. Your car’s computer will rat you out for speeding and automatically issue a fine – like the way red light cameras at busy intersections do now.

Thank you Tesla, for making this type of automotive spying more obvious to so many people. We return you now to the Tesla v. New York Times fight, already in progress.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld onTwitter and Facebook.

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