Leaked safety concerns around technology safety, vehicle production, and internal cybersecurity at Tesla have come forth via former employee Lukasz Krupski. Part of a crew established to prepare Teslas for delivery to Norwegian customers, Krupski was hailed a hero by CEO Elon Musk when he put out a fire catalyzed by an improperly modified charging device, severely burning his hands, at a motor show in Oslo in 2019.
Nearby customers and workers would have been endangered and the whole show evacuated had the fire spread.
Krupski, frustrated by mistreatment and inaction in the workplace after reporting safety concerns, disclosed a slew of data taken from the computer system to German business paper Handelsblatt.
Krupski claims he also provided information to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) about potential securities violations by Tesla. However, given the SEC’s controversial rule on media whistleblowers, Krupski may be ineligible for a whistleblower award even if his whistleblowing leads to sanctions against the company. His case thus underscores the restrictions of SEC’s parameters to qualify as a whistleblower and the need for employee education on these rules.
Blowing the Whistle on Tesla
The data provided by Krupski detailed thousands of accident reports, trouble manufacturing the Cybertruck pickup, and internal communications that exposed flaws with the company’s Autopilot driver-assistance software.
Tesla’s Autopilot is designed to drive itself: steering, accelerating, and stopping without human guidance, but requiring a driver to be ready to take the wheel. The technology is supposed to make cars safer.
Krupski leaked the personal information, often with social security numbers, of a list of Tesla employees, including Musk. His ability to access this information points to poor internal cybersecurity protocols – Krupski accessed the sensitive data by entering search terms on an internal company website.
Internal privacy concerns are being addressed in federal court in California: Benson Pai, a former Tesla production worker, claimed that Tesla’s lax security exposed employee information that could be sold to criminals. Lawyers for Mr. Pai hope to pursue the case as a class action suit on behalf of tens of thousands of employees.
The Data Protection Authority in the Netherlands, home of Tesla’s European headquarters, is investigating whether the breach violated privacy laws.
While employed, Krupski had taken photos to document production safety issues, specifically the use of a rolling table that employees put under a car when removing a battery. The table should only bear a maximum weight of 500 kilograms (~1,100 pounds), Krupski said, but the batteries weigh substantially more. If a table collapsed, workers would be seriously injured or killed.
Krupski shared this information with Aaron Greenspan, an IT CEO and prominent Tesla/Musk critic, who urged him to report the Autopilot intel to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. His information is incorporated into a long-running investigation into the software and its role in hundreds of accidents. The agency has interviewed Krupski several times, he said, but has declined to comment on any of their interactions.
In a joint letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Krupski and Greenspan raised questions about Tesla’s accounting practices. They have received no communication or updates on what the commission has done with the disclosure.
The SEC Whistleblower Program responds to individuals who voluntarily report original information about potential misconduct. If tips lead to a successful enforcement action, the whistleblowers are entitled to 10-30% of the recovered funds. The program applies transnationally, thus had he had the knowledge and resources to contact a U.S. whistleblower lawyer and properly report his findings, Krupski could have qualified.
Krupski’s methodology of distributing information calls attention to the lack of public knowledge on whistleblower protections: current SEC definitions disqualify whistleblowers who report fraud to the media, other government agencies, foreign law enforcement, or a U.S. embassy before the SEC, considering them “involuntary.” Under these standards, Krupski could be disqualified for reporting his information to the media and other government agencies first, as if he were to report the same information to the SEC it would no longer be “new,” despite being valuable.
Whistleblower advocates argue that these restrictions dissuade potential whistleblowers from engaging with the program, interfering with the agency’s objective of identifying corruption.
Back in 2019, Krupski detailed his complaints about safety practices at Tesla’s Norwegian operation in response to Musk’s congratulations via email.
He informed the CEO that there were no fire extinguishers, cardboard boxes, and other flammable materials strewn about; and employees were not briefed about where they would be working, pointing to mismanagement and a disregard for safety.
“OK, please let me know if there’s anything we should still do,” Mr. Musk replied, according to a copy of the email included in legal documents.
Following this direct exchange, Krupski’s supervisor began questioning his performance, telling him he had no future at Tesla.
In the following months, Krupski reports being moved to the basement. He was allegedly threatened and harassed by co-workers: one co-worker threatened to stab him in the back with a screwdriver, he said.
The firm representing Tesla in the suit accused Mr. Krupski of misappropriating company information and threatened to seek damages from him for documenting images of the battery removal table, claiming a violation of company policy. They plan to dispute that Krupski had been subject to retaliation.
In 2022, Krupski was fired for bad behavior, poor time management, and being a “negative influence.” He is currently unemployed and has exhausted his savings.
In an interview with The New York Times, Krupski details having suffered from depression, anxiety, and sleeplessness from the ordeal but is relieved to no longer be anonymous. “I feel like just by going public I have a new rush of energy,” he said. “I have motivation that, OK, I can maybe start building my life again.”
He has served Tesla with formal notice that he intends to sue for compensation but cannot pursue the case until he can scrape together funds for representation, as lawyers in Norway cannot work on commission.
Krupski’s Case as an Indicator
Krupski’s case underscores how international employees often do not understand the United States’ whistleblower programs’ guidelines. His case shows that employees do not have the educational resources on how to externally report violations responsibly and effectively, facing retaliation when they try to report internally.
Whistleblower advocates have been arguing that stringent whistleblower guidelines exclude valuable informants, which harms SEC investigations, the agency, shareholders, and everyday Americans.
When desperate to communicate one’s knowledge, the press or internal review can seem like the most affirmative and quickest method. This sensible response should not disqualify valued informants.
According to whistleblower advocates, the agency can and must change its definition of voluntary to ensure that whistleblowers who file complaints internally or to the press before coming to the SEC maintain award eligibility, securing a continual stream of comprehensive information.