22 July 2007


I was bumbling around Digg.com yesterday and came upon THIS article. To quote:

Did you know that the FBI can listen in to any and all of your conversations through your cell phone even when you’re not actually speaking on the phone?
Yeah, it all sounds pretty tin-foil hattish to me too. But what is known is that current cell phone technology can be tracked via triangulation, on OR off. So, if this is true, what's to stop the FBI or any other law enforcement type group from tracking anyone who has an Onstar unit in their vehicle?

I doubt it would require activation- when you pay for Onstar, you're essentially paying GM to give you the information they are probably already gathering about your vehicle. Its whereabouts. The average speed you've been driving. Your top speed. How many panic stops you've made. If the above article referenced is correct, theoretically it could be used to listen in on conversations too.

The most interesting part about all of this is how ubiquitous Onstar has become for GM- the module is standard in the large majority of their vehicles, with future plans to put it in everything. And GM has always touted it as the 'do everything' device, to the detriment of other technologies that they've failed to implement (Bluetooth, navigation, etc.). So what does GM have to say about Onstar privacy?

Well, GM does have a whole page of legalese that deals with the technology-


The first question in their FAQ deals with tracking:

Q: Does OnStar continuously monitor my car's location?
A: No, OnStar does not continuously or routinely monitor, update or otherwise track the location of OnStar-equipped cars. OnStar only knows the location of a car when a user initiates a request for service, there is an Air Bag Deployment, an Advanced Automatic Crash Notification occurs, your OnStar equipment calls OnStar with data updates or when required to locate a car by a valid court order in criminal procedures or under exigent circumstances. OnStar requires police involvement for Stolen Vehicle Location Assistance and missing person requests.
Another question deals with monitoring:

Q: If I'm not talking with an OnStar Advisor, or an Advisor and a third party conferenced in at my request, does OnStar monitor conversations in my car?
A: It is not possible for OnStar advisors to monitor car occupant conversations without notice to the occupants. When an advisor calls into your vehicle, a light flashes, there is a ring, and the radio mutes. Even if requested, it is not possible for OnStar to override this functionality. In addition, calls through the OnStar system are normally audible through the stereo speakers, and cars programmed with text display capabilities can see an indicator of a connection to OnStar on the driver's instrument panel. Moreover, OnStar's policy requires Advisors to announce their presence immediately upon establishing a call with the vehicle.
So it appears that all is fine and dandy, and that GM has covered their ample behinds on this issue. Right?

Well, maybe not really.

Earlier on we get these tidbits:

Should you choose to use Hands-Free Calling to dial 911 in an emergency situation rather than contacting OnStar, and your car contains certain OnStar equipment, the location of your car at the time the call was made may be provided to the public safety or dispatch personnel who answered your call.

OnStar only knows where your car is when a user initiates a request for service, there is an Air Bag Deployment, an Advanced Automatic Crash Notification occurs, your OnStar equipment calls OnStar with data updates or OnStar is required to locate the car by a valid court order in criminal procedures.
and finally

OnStar may use your information to:....(h) comply with legal requirements, valid court orders and exigent circumstances; (i) protect the rights, property, or safety of you or others;
All emphasis and bolding is my own. So it would seem that the idea of sharing this information and the accessibility of this information is still pretty nebulous right? So if the FBI/CIA/Insert Your Own Agency Here goes to GM with one of their 'listening lists', will GM provide the information to them? Looks like they would. It's not that GM CAN'T use the technology to do so- it's that they're telling you they won't. There's a very real difference there methinks.

For another view of Onstar, look at www.onstarprivacy.com . I originally thought it was a site FOR Onstar. How wrong I was. Instead, it points out some very obvious discrepancies in the privacy statements of GM.


  • THIS LINK , taken from the NY Times, describing a 'wire tap' scenario for something like Onstar.
  • Insurance companies may require that you permit them to examine your data as a condition of insurance.
And that's the tip of the iceberg. Go check out that site, it's really quite enlightening.

This will probably be seen as a slam against Onstar- it isn't. It's more of a question as to why this technology has been adapted so quickly and with so little questioning by the public at large. How long before Onstar technology is used to control speeding? How long before GM starts to deny warranty claims because of 'improper use' gleaned from Onstar (if this hasn't happened already). And so on and so forth. Although they aren't what they used to be in terms of marketshare, GM is still the big boy on the block in North America, and the fact that their halo technology has gotten a free ride thus far as a 'life saver' and 'invaluable' is sort of disconcerting in light of these privacy issues don't you think?

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