OnStar’s dark side

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In radio ads and literature, “OnStar” is portrayed by its parent company, General Motors, as a benign service, the only purpose of which is to enable elderly folks, mothers with children and lost drivers in general to quickly access emergency and locator services by communicating with friendly voices that are always willing and able to help. There is, however, a darker side to OnStar, as recently altered GM policies revealed.

GM announced in its most recent “terms and conditions” for the OnStar subscription service that the company would retain information collected from vehicles and make it available to third parties — even after subscribers canceled the service.

This latest intrusion really should not come as a surprise. Concerns had been expressed for years that OnStar and similar services could put personal privacy at risk, as law enforcement agencies continue to expand their powers in the post-9/11 world. The FBI specifically has been attempting to access OnStar as a pre-positioned vehicle-listening device since at least 2003.

Other interests, including insurance companies and commercial retailers, also crave access to devices like OnStar and the massive amounts of data about driver habits, routes driven and other aspects of driving that such devices collect, often unknown to the vehicle owners. These other interests undoubtedly played a role in the drafting of the new OnStar policies.

Zach Bowman at Autoblog.com explains that this is a shift in policy for the company, noting that OnStar originally “collect[ed] information on your vehicle’s location during a theft recovery or in the midst of sending emergency services your way.”

According to Bowman, OnStar is claiming the “right to collect and sell personal, yet supposedly anonymous, information on your vehicle, including speed, location, seat belt usage and other information.” And OnStar would continue to collect this data even after a subscriber cancels the service.

Anticipating a public relations problem, OnStar is claiming the new policy is harmless, and that users cancelling service can still “opt-out” of the continued tracking — a procedure that places the burden on the consumer, thereby making it less likely to occur.

The location information provided through a vehicle’s GPS system is of particular concern. OnStar’s new “terms and conditions” states that information turned over to third parties would be “anonymized.” However, Jonathan Zdziarski, a forensic scientist and technology expert, writes that there is “no such thing” as anonymized GPS data.

The hollowness of OnStar’s claim is illustrated by Zdziarski, who explains that “[i]t’s like trying to say that someone’s Google Map lookup from their home is ‘anonymized’ because it doesn’t have their name on it. It still shows where they live!”

There already is talk of Congress initiating an investigation into OnStar’s activities. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) adamantly declared last weekend that the policy is “shameless” and “must be stopped.”

However, if history is any guide, law enforcement agencies and other special interest groups that will benefit from being able to access OnStar’s treasure trove of data will lobby hard to preserve their access to this valuable information. Unless the public becomes actively involved in this debate and doesn’t permit the issues to be framed by smooth advertising and law enforcement scare tactics, the cars and trucks they own and drive will become travelling data collectors for others.

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He provides regular commentary to Daily Caller readers.