As you probably know already, Tesla has been struggling to meet orders on its Model 3 sedan. Late Sunday night, founder Elon Musk sent an email to employees stating that he had identified one problem contributing to that difficulty: An employee had been sabotaging equipment. From Reuters:
Tesla Inc Chief Executive Elon Musk said on Monday in an email to staff that an unnamed Tesla employee had conducted “extensive and damaging sabotage” to the company’s operations including allegedly making unspecified code changes to its manufacturing operating system and sending what the email said was sensitive Tesla data to unnamed third parties.
“The full extent of his actions are not yet clear, but what he has admitted to so far is pretty bad,” Musk wrote. “His stated motivation is that he wanted a promotion that he did not receive.” Musk did not specify to whom he was referring.
Today, Tesla filed a lawsuit against the former employee. Like Musk’s email to employees, the lawsuit claims former employee Martin Tripp has already admitted to some stealing company secrets:
Within a few months of Tripp joining Tesla, his managers identified Tripp as having problems with job performance and at times being disruptive and combative with his colleagues. As
a result of these and other issues, on or about May 17, 2018, Tripp was assigned to a new role. Tripp expressed anger that he was reassigned.
Thereafter, Tripp retaliated against Tesla by stealing confidential and trade secret information and disclosing it to third parties, and by making false statements intended to harm the
On June 14 and 15, 2018, Tesla investigators interviewed Tripp regarding his misconduct. After Tripp initially stated that no misconduct had occurred, Tesla investigators confronted him with evidence to the contrary. At that point, Tripp admitted to writing software that hacked Tesla’s MOS and to transferring several gigabytes of confidential and proprietary Tesla data to entities outside the company. This included dozens of photographs and a video of Tesla’s manufacturing systems.
During the interview, Tripp also admitted that he attempted to recruit additional sources inside the Gigafactory to share confidential Tesla data outside the company.
While its investigation is still in the early stages, Tesla has also discovered that Tripp authored hacking software and placed it onto the computer systems of three other individuals at the company so that confidential Tesla data could be persistently exported off its network from these other systems to unknown third parties.
All of this sounds very bad, but Tripp is now telling CNN that he was acting as a whistleblower, not a saboteur or thief:
“I am being singled out for being a whistleblower. I didn’t hack into system. The data I was collecting was so severe, I had to go to the media,” said Martin Tripp, the defendant in Tesla’s suit, told CNNMoney soon after the suit was filed…
Tripp told CNN he was fired within the last week and sued by Tesla because he was trying to warn investors and the public about problems at the electric carmaker. He said that he discovered that 1,100 damaged battery modules were installed in Model 3 cars that are on the road today. He said that he was also concerned about excessive scrap that is being stored in a dangerous manner on Tesla’s property in Nevada that will be expensive to safely dispose of in the future.
As noted above, Tesla denies that any damaged batteries were installed in any of its cars. It also denies it has a problem with excessive scrap on its property. For his part, Tripp denies he ever complained about his position at the company or about a missed promotion.
I don’t know who is telling the truth here, but it seems the timeline is going to be a key part of unraveling this. If Tripp was taking material and talking to reporters before any problems with his work cropped up, that would help his case. If, on the other hand, his theft and discussions with reporters only happened after he was confronted and reassigned to another job (as the lawsuit claims) then it sounds a lot more like an attempt at retaliation.