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OnStar’s “Brazen” Spying May Trigger Government Investigation

GM unit apologies for “confusion” caused by new policies.

by on Sep.26, 2011

Big Brother is watching you? OnStar's Command Center.

The possibility that General Motors’ telematics unit OnStar could spy on motorists – even after they stop subscribing to the service – has triggered a call for a government investigation by a leading U.S. senator who described the move as a “brazen” invasion of privacy.

A change made last week to OnStar’s Terms and Conditions will now only allow the service to not only track data such as mileage, speed and location of vehicles operated by current and former subscribers but also to sell that information to third parties. The GM subsidiary apologized over the weekend for any “confusion” it might have caused but said it intends to continue the practice.

Get Behind the Wheel!

“By tracking drivers even after they’ve cancelled their service, OnStar is attempting one of the most brazen invasions of privacy in recent memory,” said New York Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer. “I urge OnStar to abandon this policy and for (the Federal Trade Commission) to immediately launch a full investigation to determine whether the company’s actions constitute an unfair trade practice.”

Telematics is one of the fastest growing areas within the auto industry, virtually every major automaker now offering some form of communications link between the vehicle and cloud-based services such as navigation, real-time traffic and music services.  OnStar was one of the first and remains among the most aggressive among the telematics providers.

Many of the newest systems, such as Ford’s Sync, rely on a Bluetooth link between the vehicle’s electronics and cloud-based services, such as Pandora radio.  OnStar, however, has traditionally used a data and voice link built into the vehicle itself.  As a result, there is a direct monthly fee for subscribers while Sync and many other newer systems operate at no charge – other than the fee a user might pay for their cellphone service.

Typically offered with a limited free subscription, many users then opt to cancel OnStar.  But the service’s revised Terms and Conditions, or TaC, now state that “OnStar will maintain a two-way connection to their vehicle unless they ask us not to do so,” confirmed Joanne Finnorn, the vice president of Subscriber Services.

So, while a former subscriber might no longer have access to OnStar services, the telematics firm continues to have access to a wide range of vehicle data, including information about how and where it is being driven.  OnStar may then, according to the revised TaC, market that information to governments that might want to track traffic flow, for example, or a marketing firm that wants to selectively target motorists who might drive a specific route.

So far, says Finnorn, that has not been done – and even if it were in the future, she says individual details would not be released.  The data would be aggregated.

“We apologize for creating any confusion about our terms and conditions,” said Joanne Finnor, vice president of subscriber services. “We want to make sure we are as clear with our customers as possible, but it’s apparent that we have failed to do this.”

The executive says that one reason for maintaining the link is that in the future it could develop “the capability to alert vehicle occupants about severe weather conditions such as tornado warnings or mandatory evacuations. Another benefit for keeping this connection “open” could be to provide vehicle owners with any updated warranty data or recall issues.”

Schumer and other skeptics appear to doubt that such noble potential is at the heart of the changes to the OnStar Terms and Conditions and may press for restrictions on the company going forward.

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