Tesla allegedly hacked, spied on, and followed Gigafactory whistleblower: report

By Sean O'Kane

Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

Tesla investigators who were personally hired by Elon Musk allegedly hacked an employee’s phone, spied on his messages, and even misled police about a potential mass shooting, according to Sean Gouthro, a former security manager at the company’s Nevada Gigafactory. Gouthro’s claims are the centerpiece of a new blockbuster Bloomberg Businessweek report about how the company has responded to whistleblowers in its ranks.

Gouthro describes a months-long campaign from Tesla to hound the employee, Martin Tripp, who later filed an official whistleblower tip with the Securities and Exchange Commission. His account also fills in some of the many gaps in the vague description his lawyer offered earlier this week of Gouthro’s own official whistleblower tip, which he filed with the SEC in January.

This alleged activity took place after a June 4th, 2018, Business Insider story, which cites internal documents that claim that Tesla was wasting a “jaw-dropping” amount of raw material as it ramped up production of the Model 3 sedan. Musk “stewed for weeks” over this, according to the report. The former security manager says he was tasked to track down the person behind the leak. He quickly centered in on Tripp, the only employee who had accessed the data cited by Business Insider.

Tripp was interrogated by Tesla’s investigators, who Musk reportedly personally hired, despite allegations that they had been involved in spying on rivals while working at Uber. Tripp admitted to leaking the information to Business Insider, but he denied taking bribes from the reporter, as Musk later claimed on Twitter. Musk has also said that Tripp sent internal Tesla data to “unknown third parties,” though no evidence of this surfaced. Gouthro says Musk tried to damage Tripp’s reputation by spreading misinformation, according to Bloomberg. Tripp now lives in Hungary to “avoid attention.”

Gouthro wasn’t in the interrogation room, but he tells Bloomberg he “saw a colleague reading the text messages and emails that Tripp was sending during breaks in the questioning.” He also claims, like another former Tesla security worker-turned-whistleblower, that “a Tesla investigator installed a device at the factory that monitored everyone’s private communications,” according to Bloomberg.

Tesla “had the ability to do things I didn’t even know existed,” Gouthro tells the outlet. “It scared the shit out of me.”

Tripp was fired five days later. Musk sent out an email to Tesla staff claiming that an employee had tried to do “damaging sabotage to our operations,” and he even suggested that “Wall Street short-sellers,” “oil & gas companies,” or “the multitude of big gas/diesel car company competitors” might have been behind the activity. Tesla then sued Tripp for $167 million, claiming he had “unlawfully hacked the company’s confidential and trade secret information.”

Gouthro says Tesla had private investigators follow Tripp after he was fired. A tip was reportedly called into Tesla’s call center that Tripp might “come back and shoot people” at the Gigafactory, according to an email Musk sent to The Guardian at the time. When a Storey County sheriff’s deputy found Tripp and realized that the threat wasn’t real, he told Tesla, which requested to put out a press release “hyping it” anyway, according to Bloomberg.

Gouthro’s account to Bloomberg includes other salacious and explosive claims. Tesla staffed up so fast at the Gigafactory in order to build the Model 3 that the security manager’s team had a hard time keeping order. Employees used cocaine and methamphetamines in the bathrooms and had sex in unfinished parts of the factory, he tells the outlet. He also claims that a Tesla lawyer told him the company’s former head of security “spied on a union meeting on Musk’s orders and then threatened to tell the world about it.” (Tesla has a long, combative history with the United Automobile Workers union.)

Tesla said on Monday that Gouthro’s allegations are “untrue and sensationalized,” and that he was fired for “poor performance, including repeated failure to demonstrate and understand best practices in the security industry.” Gouthro disputes this account, according to Bloomberg. The company declined to comment or answer specific questions about the report on Wednesday.

The new report comes at a frenzied moment in Tesla’s history. The company is one day away from revealing the Model Y compact SUV, which will be the fifth car of Tesla’s to hit the road and its second attempt at a mass-market vehicle. Musk is once again locked in a public battle with the SEC, which recently asked a court to hold him in contempt over a tweet the commission says violates the settlement the two sides reached last year.