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Tesla 100 GB Data Bomb Turned Over To Handelsblatt

One or more Tesla employees have supplied data from inside the company to Handelsblatt, much of it embarrassing to the company.

Handelsblatt (paywall), one of Germany’s top news organizations, says it has received over 100 GB of data from one or more Tesla employees. It broke the story with this headline: “‘My autopilot almost killed me’: Tesla files cast doubt on Elon Musk’s promises.” Those reports suggest that Tesla failed to adequately protect data from customers, employees, and business partners and has received thousands of customer complaints regarding the carmaker’s driver assistance system, according to The Guardian.

That’s not all. Handelsbatt says that included in the data are tables containing more than 100,000 names of former and current employees, including the social security number of CEO Elon Musk, along with private email addresses, phone numbers, salaries of employees, bank details of customers, and secret details from production.

Data protection in Germany is primarily governed by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The data protection office in Brandenburg, where Tesla’s European gigafactory is located, described the data leak as massive. “I can’t remember such a scale,” the Brandenburg data protection officer, Dagmar Hartge, told The Guardian.

If such a violation is proved, Tesla could be fined up to 4% of its annual sales, which could be €3.26 billion ($3.5 billion). Just this week, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, was given a record €1.2 billion fine by the EU privacy regulator over its handling of user information and given five months to stop transferring user data to the US.

Tesla Data Breach Details

The complaints, which were reported across the US, Europe, and Asia, span from 2015 to March 2022. During this period, Handelsblatt says Tesla customers in the US, Europe, and Asia reported more than 2,400 self-acceleration issues and 1,500 braking problems. These include 139 reports of “unintentional emergency braking” and 383 reports of “phantom stops” from false collision warnings. Other reports are about instances of claimed sudden acceleration, some of which caused cars to end up in a ditch, hit walls, or crash into oncoming vehicles.


Photo by Zachary Shahan | CleanTechnica.

The data shared with Handelsblatt also sheds light on how Tesla handles relations with customers and others outside the company. Typically, if any response is required, it has to be done orally. Nothing is to be written in texts or emails. Employees are constantly admonished to use verbal communications only. Employees are instructed, “Do not copy the report below into an email, text message, or leave it in a voicemail to the customer.”

Customers that Handelsblatt spoke to have the impression that Tesla employees avoid written communication. “They never sent emails, everything was always oral,” says a doctor from California who said her Tesla accelerated on its own in the fall of 2021 and crashed into two concrete pillars.

The Handelsblatt Investigation

Handelsblatt editor in chief Sebastian Matthes has written a lengthy explanation of how his organization has dealt with the data supplied to them:

Today we report on the Tesla files, which are 100 gigabytes of data that apparently come from the heart of Tesla. They were leaked to the Handelsblatt by several informants and they provide clues as to how the otherwise secretive company works.

For six months, a twelve person Handelsblatt team evaluated [the] files which contain 1,388 PDF documents, 1,015 Excel spreadsheets, and 213 Powerpoint presentations, as well as numerous images, videos, audio files and emails.

The data paints the picture of an electric car pioneer who seems to have far greater technological problems than previously known. With its Autopilot, for example. The Tesla files contain thousands of reports of complications with the driver assistance systems. Complaints of Tesla vehicles suddenly braking at full speed. Or accelerate suddenly.

That a Tesla in a parking lot apparently drives around bollards by hand. Many accidents ended lightly, some ended fatally. A table in the Tesla files on suspected autopilot safety issues includes around 3,000 entries.

Two weeks ago, our editorial team sent Tesla a comprehensive list of questions. They remain unanswered. Instead, the company demanded that the data be deleted and spoke of data theft.

Believe me, I prefer to report on successful innovations and I like bold entrepreneurial visions. But I have no doubt this story belongs in the public domain. The other car manufacturers are also struggling with autonomous driving. But hardly any car boss has made such big promises in this field as Elon Musk. As early as 2016, he declared that autonomous driving was “essentially a solved problem.” To this day, he keeps saying the same thing.

Handelsblatt has not only analyzed data for this publication. Our reporters spoke to current and former Tesla employees in Europe and the USA, interviewed mobility experts, and they interviewed dozens of accident victims — or when that was no longer possible, their survivors.

At the end of the research, there is also the question of how conscientiously Tesla handles data, because the informants were apparently able to access the files without major restrictions, even though the information went far beyond their area of ​​responsibility. The Tesla files show the salaries of 100,000 employees, bank details of customers, secret production details, even Tesla boss Elon Musk’s putative vehicle and social security numbers.

The research documents the structure of a company with more than 127,000 employees, which is tailored to one person: Elon Musk. The company boss seems to be involved in the smallest things — be it the material of the battery anode or be it door handles. This is how startups can work. Above a certain size, however, companies need different structures, strong managers, and IT that protects both company secrets and employee data.

Elon Musk may be a brilliant entrepreneur, certainly also because he often does not care about the limits of what was previously thought. However, if Musk’s leadership shortcomings mean that the rights of his employees and the lives of his customers are at risk, then it’s time to tighten the limits of his power.

The Takeaway

My colleague Carolyn Fortuna wrote much the same thing in an article this week suggesting it was time for Musk to step aside as the head of Tesla. Every organization reflects the values of its leaders. It is troubling how closely this information about reports of problems with Autopilot and FSD being swept aside tracks with what we learned this week about Neuralink, where most of the founders departed the company after they found the boss — Elon Musk — had no patience with the slow, incremental pace or traditional medical research and demanded “results” when there were none to give.

There is a disturbing undercurrent to Musk’s behavior. He cares not at all for the impact his single-minded visions have on others.

This data leak may result in a slap on the wrist for the company, or it may provoke regulators to awaken from their slumber, recognize what Elon and his minions are up to, and take action to protect the public. Which will it be? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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