GM is Watching You…

by: Eric Peters

I have never liked GM’s OnStar system – in part because I don’t like the idea of my car that I paid for having someone else’s “black box” recording (and transmitting) data about how I drive, where I drive and even when I drive. I also don’t like that GM force-feeds OnStar to every buyer of every GM car – whether the buyer wants it or not.

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.

And there is the prospect of delicious (to power lusters) micromanaging control, too.

Drive faster than The Law says you ought to – and they’ll know about it, immediately, every single time you do it and exactly how much you do it. Fail to Buckle Up For Safety – even if it’s just to drive down the driveway – and they’ll know about it the moment you put the car in gear. It is entirely within the realm of technical possibility that they’ll even know exactly what you’ve een talking about while in your car, too – because OnStar is very much like a Telescreen from Orwell’s 1984. If you have an OnStar-equipped car, you have GM’s microphones in your car. And GM can turn them on anytime it likes – and record anything you say.

No, I am not exaggerating.

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. But the vehicular voyeurs at OnStar aren’t interested in what I want. Or what you want.

Of course, this was a press car – GM’s car – so you may say (rightly) that GM has every right to monitor me when I am in their car. But what about when the car is your car? And when you don’t want OnStar Watching You? Shouldn’t you have the right to say No Thanks?

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. The system knows and records where the car is parked, where it is driven, when and how fast and if it doesn’t keep track of all those things specifically and not so anonymously, well, then of what use is the information? And besides, are we supposed to just trust GM that it will anonymize our personal data?

Blogger Jonathan Zdziarski notes: “ If your vehicle is consistently parked at your home, driving down your driveway, or taking a left or right turn onto your street, its pretty obvious that this is where you live! It’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! What’s unique even more-so to OnStar is that the data they claim they sell as part of their business model is useless unless it’s specific; that is, not diluted to the nearest 10 mile radius, etc. This combination of analytics, and their prospective customers (law enforcement, marketers, etc) requires the data be disturbingly precise. Anyone armed with Google can easily do a phone book or public records search to find the name and address that resides at any given GPS coordinate.”

Writes Zdziarski: “Anonymized GPS data? There’s no such thing!”

And to whom will the data be provided? TOS says “public safety or traffic services.” Translation: Insurance cartels and cops – the Tweedledee and Tweedledums of modern Motorist Mulcting.

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.

GM says it will “…comply with all laws regarding notifying you and obtaining your consent before we collect, use or share information about you or your Vehicle in any other way than has been described in this privacy statement.”

But the privacy statement specifically says they’ll collect and share your info however they damn well please! What possible “other way” might they use or share your information? They’ve already exhausted pretty much every possibility – it’s all right there in the TOS!

Abe Lincoln must have been reincarnated as a lawyer for GM!

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. Latter-day Ahhhhhhmerikuns just love their gadgets and besides, it’s all about keeping us safe, isn’t it?

As for me, I’ll continue to drive my OnStar (and air-bag) free old car for as long as I’m allowed to – unmonitored, unrecorded.

It probably won’t be for very much longer.

Reprinted with permission from