The recently revealed scandal called Tesla Files is related to the leakage of files describing the policy and internal communication of Tesla company. There was also lots of confidential information about trade secrets and Tesla employees’ personal data. The unnamed whistleblower from Tesla has passed 100 gigabytes of data from Tesla's IT systems in Germany and in the Netherlands to the German newspaper Handelsblatt. The data authenticity was confirmed by Fraunhofer Institute for Secure Information Technology.
According to inside messages, the employees were instructed to communicate only verbally about customer complaints to avoid written records. The instructions did not allow to exchange details via emails or even to leave messages on voicemails. Those complaints involved crashes and problems with faulty collision warnings, Autopilot, and self-driving technology: driver assistance systems, acceleration or braking, including phantom and emergency braking. Although they should have been treated seriously, the company made an effort to keep them unable to be published.
Elon Musk at the 2015 Tesla Motors Annual Meeting / ©Steve Jurvetson (CC BY 2.0)
Verbal communication only
The Tesla files revealed how the company handles complaints and communicates with customers. Employees follow precise guidelines, aiming to minimize vulnerability. Reports are marked “for internal use only”, with information to be shared verbally rather than through written communication. The instructions explicitly state not to copy reports into emails, text messages, or voicemails. Customers have reported that Tesla employees primarily rely on verbal communication and avoid written exchanges.
Before the files were shared with society, Handelsblatt analyzed them in a detailed way. The paper contacted dozens of customers from different countries. All of them confirmed the information from the Tesla files. The described incidents happened between 2015 and 2022, mainly in the USA but also in Europe and Asia. One of them was concerned with a car crash in 2021 in California after the car accelerated on its own and crashed into concrete pillars. The other exemplary incidents ended up in hitting walls, other vehicles, or driving into a ditch.
The data paints the picture of an electric car pioneer who seems to have far greater technological problems than previously known.
Sebastian Matthes, editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt
Data protection violation
Another aspect of this affair is that sharing the data with Handelsblatt by the whistleblower is equal to a violation by Tesla of data protection, as required by the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The files are considered as not adequately protected as a lot of personal details from customers, employees and business partners could easily be published. Private contact details, customers’ bank details, salaries and names of former and current employees and other sensitive data can be found within Tesla Files. This plot was notified in April 2023 to the German authorities for a separate investigation of the data protection breach. Probably, the same whistleblower is responsible for this notification. By the way, it occurred that some Tesla workers circulated between themselves videos and images of vehicle owners taken by cameras in the cars. The shared records came not only from car crashes or road incidents and, although private and sometimes even embarrassing, were internally considered humorous and became memes. One of them belonged to a naked man walking to his car. The employees of Tesla were able to spy on customers’ personal lives and garages. This thread comes from Reuters.
I can't remember such a scale
Dagmar Hartge, Brandenburg data protection officer
If the investigation started and the verdict was unfavorable for Tesla, it would result in a fine of 3.5 billion dollars. Just for comparison, so far, the highest fine for improper handling of users' information was 1.2 billion euros and was imposed on Meta.
Commenting on the revelations, Tesla considers the leakage as a stealing of data. It can be understood as not only a good name, but also secret details from production are endangered. The company requested to delete the files urgently and announced legal consequences both for Handelsblatt and for a former service technician who is now said to be responsible for the leak.
It is yet unknown whether the Tesla Files investigation will be continued against Tesla. The majority of the files contain sensitive data, including the social security number of Elon Musk, and cannot guarantee sufficient legal basis. Additionally, self-driving software responsible for technical malfunctions has been updated for millions of vehicles after the incidents happened.
Regarding the revelation of peering into customers’ privacy via built-in cameras, the official information from Tesla on its website says that the camera system is “designed from the ground up to protect your privacy."
Independently of the leaked Tesla Files, numerous lawsuits are imminent, involving not only shareholders but also family members of individuals involved in Tesla crashes, especially because of its driver assistance systems. Furthermore, regulatory bodies such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Department of Justice are intensifying their scrutiny of the situation.
Not so long ago, Tesla was worth more than all the giants in the car market combined. In November 2021, the company was worth 1.2 trillion dollars. In May 2023, it was less than half that value.