28 September 2011

Is GM's OnStar inappropriately watching you ?

This item comes from the Lew Rockwell site, so some will automatically dismiss it as "conspiracy theory."  But the facts themselves seem to be solid; the debate will be over the implications...
I believe that GM’s long-term goal is to see to it that not only every GM vehicle is equipped with a “black box” (technically, an Event Data Recorder, or EDR) but that all vehicles are so equipped – and every single driver in the United States – possibly the world – monitored whenever he or she is operating a motor vehicle.

There is big money in it: Automated tickets, jacked-up insurance fees for “speeders” and seat belt scofflaws – as well as “marketing opportunities” for GM’s “partners,” whom GM will provide all sorts of juicy tidbits about your life to – including where and when you shop, so that they can “target” their advertising your way...

I test-drive new cars each week to review them for my weekly car column. Part of my test drive includes running the car at a good clip “up the mountain” – a series of S turns that takes you up about 1,600 feet in elevation over the course of about two miles. One week not too long ago I was testing a GM vehicle. I took it up the mountain at a good clip – faster than the posted speed limit, to be sure. This apparently alarmed OnStar because as I reached the final curve and straightened the car out, all of a sudden the stereo cut out and a loud female voice replaced Van Halen: “Are you in need of EMS?” This startled me for a moment. Then I realized what had happened. The creepy OnStar unit was triggered by my speed (and the rapid change in altitude). It assumed I had wrecked the car- even though I promise all four wheels never left the pavement and were entirely under my control at all times. And it decided I needed “help.” I didn’t, so thanked the operator for her concern but noted to myself that here was proof positive that OnStar is Watching You.

I didn’t ask to be watched. I don’t want to be watched...

Now comes evidence – in the form of OnStar’s latest Terms of Service – that my instinctive paranoia was well-founded about where all this is going.

The TOS announces that OnStar – that is, General Motors – will henceforth collect data about your driving habits “… for any purpose, at any time … .” Previously, OnStar only kept track of data relevant to an accident, in the event of an accident.

Now it will keep track of everything, all the time.

The TOS attempts to soothe the immediately obvious concerns any half-awake person might have after reading the above by going on to state that “… following collection of such location and speed information identifiable to your Vehicle, it is shared only on an anonymized basis.” Except, of course, that such data is essentially useless when anonymized...

And to whom will the data be provided? TOS says “public safety or traffic services.” Translation: Insurance cartels and cops...

GM also will “share” details about your personal life with its “partners” in order to “… allow us, and our affiliates, your Vehicle Maker, and Vehicle dealers, to offer you new or additional products or services; and for other purposes.”

All without your consent – indeed, against your express wishes.

You can’t say no to OnStar – unless you say no to GM, period – and don’t buy a GM vehicle.
If your GM vehicle has Onstar, the TOS explicitly states that it will continue to record and collect your data even after you cancel your service. The only way to be sure Onstar isn’t watching you is to physically disable the system on your own – by cutting wires or just smashing the infernal thing...

The worst part, though, is not the insolence of GM. It is the indifference of the public. I doubt most GM vehicle owners will even bother to read the latest TOS and the few that do either won’t comprehend or care what about what’s been put on the table.
Addendum: A hat tip to BJN, who found that as a result of recent bad publicity, GM is now revising the terms of service and at least will not continue to record data after the user cancels the service.


  1. This information is outdated as of today.


    You'll have to cancel OnStar service, to duck the all-seeing eye.

  2. Thanks, BJN. I've added your info and link to the post.

  3. . . . and how do we know that they will really do what they say????

  4. Not much news. Microsoft software always pings to Microsoft HQ, every time you start the program. This way, Microsoft knows exactly who opens their software when and where, whether legally bought or illegally copied. This way Microsoft knows exactly how many illegal copies of their software are around, and who uses it. They can't use this information in a court of law, but they can use it for internal and lobbying purposes.

  5. You could unplug it or take the fuse out: done. If they have made OnStar operation a condition of being able to start the car, that's a problem.

    On the other hand, being able to locate a car instantly would put a crimp in car thefts. And tracking vehicles in real time, even aggregated/anonymized, would be useful for traffic monitoring/planning.

    You have no reasonable expectation of privacy on the public street, on foot or in your car. The contents of the car are protected but the car itself, not so much.

    While I'm sympathetic to the idea that OnStar is overreaching here, I see a misunderstanding of what's really going on and what our rights really protect.

  6. If these become universal, I anticipate an upswing in business for auto maintenance shops, as everyone tries to keep their existing cars -- which don't have these infernal gadgets -- running as long as possible rather than buy a new one which does have it.

  7. Infidel753, most of the public has seems to have proven they don't care about privacy. No one seems to have stopped carrying a cell phone, even though the phone companies store location and traffic data. I'm tempted to drop the device on privacy grounds, but it is very useful to me. I sadly suspect the same will apply to OnStar and similar services.

  8. No, Microsoft software doesn't report in each time it's launched. When you install it you will be asked if you want to participate in sending information on use (ie. how used, not when or who) intermittently - part of their effort to gather info they use to try to improve the usability and stability. if you don't want to participate, you just say 'no' when asked on install.

    The phone is traceable to your current location, in part because it has to tell the cells where it is so you can get incoming calls. They've made use of this to help locate you for emergency services use and for your use (think iPhone; even without GPS you can get a rough location for yourself, it's used to give you mapping services). Not sure what you mean by storing 'traffic data'.

    As to OnStar, when you cancel the service you will be asked if you agree to leaving the device enabled or not. So you can just say 'no'. One of the things OnStar sells as a benefit of its service is that 'looks like you've just had an accident, shall we call for help' things. If you don't like this level of observance, don't take OnStar.

  9. Oh, and if the original author writes a weekly car column and yet doesn't already know that OnStar has this whole trying-to-detect-an-accident thing they promote as a big advantage of the service (I'm not a fan)...well, wow. Only GM car I've ever owned was a 1960 Parisienne like 25 years ago, but I've known about this for years. It's advertised. They're not hiding the fact they're 'watching' (not, of course, that they are; instead automated systems in the car report in when they think they've detected an event that feels like an accident) - they're trumpeting it!


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