Tesla gamble with customers' trust by sharing personal data

We are generating data at an unfathomable rate. Every time we browse social media, buy an item online or log onto public WIFI we add another digital breadcrumb to the sprawling trail that reflects our movements, habits and decisions. Those with access to this data have the new and thrilling opportunity to build detailed pictures of individual lives and, ultimately, gain an unprecedented understanding of human behaviour.

There’s nothing wrong with this, necessarily. When used correctly, big data has the power to transform lives, improving everything from healthcare to road safety. Brands who take proper advantage of both their own transaction data and third-party data sources can deepen their relationship with customers and drive substantial growth.

However, when personal data is misused, it constitutes a breach of consumer trust and can seriously damage a brand or organisation’s reputation – sometimes irrevocably.

So, where is the line between using and abusing personal data?

This is the dilemma currently facing Tesla; recent research conducted by The Guardian claims that the futuristic tech brand has been using customer data from self-driving cars to defend its software against safety accusations.

 According to the article: 

“The Guardian could not find a single case in which Tesla had sought the permission of a customer who had been involved in an accident before sharing detailed information from the customer’s car with the press when its self-driving software was called into question.”

Tesla has set itself apart with a modern approach to data; the company gather as much customer data as possible and use it to respond to demand, making continuous updates and anticipating problems informed by a stream of almost real-time information. Yet, by sharing drivers’ personal data without permission, they are shifting from a customer-centric strategy towards a business-centric one. In other words, Tesla have shown that they’re willing to risk losing customer trust in order to protect the brand.

Starcount’s Chief Data Scientist, Clive Humby, shared his own thoughts on the issue:

“This article on Tesla and data sharing should raise real concerns for anyone considering the future of personal data from telematics and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Releasing data that proves a statement made under oath to the police is factually incorrect is one thing, but I am much more guarded that this is personal data, not Tesla's data. The information generated by the journey should be the property of the data subject and used as the data subject sees fit. Law enforcement will always have the ability to get a warrant for the driving data if it can be used in the case, but it should not be at the brand's discretion but the data subject’s when the data is released under other conditions.
 Does it set a precedent for the IoT? How about what movies you’re watching , if you are listening to depressing music, are you in or out of your home, what time you go to bed, how often you exercise.... The list is becoming longer and longer as our digital footprint increases.
Thinking about the bricks and mortar world, data would show how many bottles of wine you've bought in the last 4 weeks at your local supermarket, if you keep taking your prescription drugs, how you travel to work…
 Law makers need to catch up and quick.”

Tesla issued a response to The Guardian’s claims, stating that:

“The privacy of our customers is extremely important and something we take very seriously, and in such cases, Tesla discloses only the minimum amount of information necessary.”

The woolly wording of this statement, however, encapsulates the problem at hand: what a Tesla representative deems the ‘minimum amount of information necessary’ may differ greatly to what a customer is happy to share publicly.

Restrictions are beginning to tighten around the use of personal data, with GDPR representing an important towards increased data protection. Yet, while the law struggles to keep up with the pace of digital transformation, it’s the responsibility of brands and organisations to respect customers’ privacy - aside from anything else, their PR departments will thank them for it.