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Tesla Chief Elon Musk Assures Customers in China That its Vehicle Cameras Are Not Active, Addressing Recent Security Concerns

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【Summary】Last month the Chinese military banned Tesla cars from entering its complexes in China, citing security concerns over cameras in its vehicles. So Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk is downplaying the security threats of models sold in China, assuring customers on social media that Tesla's "Sentry Mode" cameras are not active outside of the U.S.

FutureCar Staff    Apr 07, 2021 8:00 AM PT
Tesla Chief Elon Musk Assures Customers in China That its Vehicle Cameras Are Not Active, Addressing Recent Security Concerns

One of the unique features that Tesla offers in its electric vehicles is Sentry Mode. The feature allows Tesla owners to keep taps on their vehicles remotely if someone tries to break in.

However, government officials in China were not too keen on an American company being able to record video from its vehicles. Last month the military banned Tesla cars from entering its complexes in China, citing security concerns over cameras in its vehicles, sources told Reuters. 

So Tesla is downplaying the security threats of the feature for models sold in China, assuring customers on social media that it's not available outside of the U.S.

In a social media post on Wednesday, Tesla said that the cameras in its cars are not activated outside of North America, which will help address security concerns in the world's biggest car market.

"Even in the United States, car owners can freely choose whether to turn on its (Sentry Mode) use. Tesla is equipped with a network security system with world-leading security levels to ensure user privacy protection," the electric carmaker wrote on Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media site.

Tesla's Sentry Mode began rolling out to U.S. Model 3 vehicles in 2019. It's also offered in Model S and Model X vehicles built after August 2017. Sentry Mode essentially uses the cameras to support a high-tech alarm for Tesla vehicles.

Sentry Mode continuously monitors the environment around the car when it's left unattended. When a driver enables the feature, the Tesla vehicle enters a "Standby" state similar to a home alarm system, which uses the car's external cameras to detect potential threats. 

If a minimal threat is detected, such as someone leaning on a car or attempting to open the doors, Sentry Mode switches to an "Alert" state and the system displays a message on the center touchscreen display, which warns the person that the vehicle's cameras are recording.

If a more severe threat is detected, such as someone breaking a window, Sentry Mode switches to an "Alarm" state, which activates the car alarm, increases the brightness of the center display and plays music at maximum volume from the car's audio system, all the while the vehicle's cameras are recording the event.

The real concern from government officials in China is that video can be recorded and somehow used by Tesla for dubious purposes, like spying.

If a car switches to "Alarm" state, Tesla owners receive an alert from the mobile app notifying them that an incident has occurred. One a Tesla' vehicle enters an "Alarm state" an owner can download a video recording of an incident (which begins 10 minutes prior to the time a threat was detected) by inserting a formatted USB drive into their car before they enable the feature.

However, at a virtual forum in Beijing last month, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk emphasised the company's intent to protect user privacy.

"There's a very strong incentive for us to be very confidential with any information," Musk said. "If Tesla used cars to spy in China or anywhere, we will get shut down."

China is the world's biggest auto market and an important one for Tesla to remain profitable. Roughly 30% of all of its electric vehicles are sold in China, so Tesla won't do anything that could compromise its integrity or interests in the world's biggest auto market.

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