GM is Watching You…

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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 been 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?

GM doesn’t think so.

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. Or so it said.

Now it will keep track of everything, all the time. And it says so openly.

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.

 

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36 COMMENTS

  1. Since moving to TN, while getting insurance, I was twice offered a 10% discount to accept what is essentially a GPS data recorder. The agent seemed surprised at my reaction about not wanting Big Brother monitoring my driving habits. It was actually quite a bit more emphatic than that. For some reason, these folks don’t like the F-bomb. In any case, the trend seems pretty obvious to me. To me this type of action by the PTB indicates simply that a tipping point is near.

  2. Pleasant, sexy OnStar voice – No I cannot unlock your ignition. You have two parking tickets you need to pay, an overdue child support payment, your trash bill is due and the IRS thinks you owe them some money. Oh, and by the way – It seems that you have had too much to drink today. Thank you for using OnStar.

    • Such an intelligent riposte, John.

      It always heartens me when the opposition reveals itself. No ideas, no capacity to intelligently dispute a point with facts and logic. Just hysteria, illiterate, unintelligible eructations (usually sprinkled with ALL CAPS) personal attacks and profanity.

      It makes our case for us.

      Thanks so much!

    • @John – Stay asleep. If you did wake up you’d have to use the gun you don’t own on yourself, or at least quit your federal GS# job.

  3. Just for fun, I went to GMs website. i told them I was in the market for a new car. I asked them if it was possible to have Onstar deleted form the car, or if it was possible to have the unit removed. i told them that I consider the units an invasion of my privacy, and that i will not purchase a car that has it.

    This might be an exersize or futility on my part. I will forward their reply if they respond.

    Reply

  4. Additionally, you didn’t mention that OnStar has the ability to disable cars while they are being driven. The engines can be turned off or slowly fuel starved, thus reducing power, until the driver is forced to stop. Even the doors can be locked until police arrive. 

    The idea is that one could call OnStar if their car is stolen and both locate and disable the vehicle remotely. However, there is no reason someone else, such as a criminal or a police officer (or do I repeat myself), couldn’t use the same system for other reasons. Stopping a car chase might be one such proposed reason, but what’s to prevent an officer from abusing this power? After all, they freely abuse most of their other powers. 

    Another example would be a car theft through a social engineering attack. A skilled individual could access (hack) the OnStar system and shut down the car, thus convincing a customer his car has broken down. They may then abandon it and leave the perpetrator to reverse the disable signal and drive off.  

    All of this points to the same thing. Almost anything can be used for good or bad. The only way to hold them accountable is the market. We see time and again how government regulation tends to lead to greater corruption and inefficiency. Slow to respond and fraught with unintended consequences, government is more part of the problem than the solution. 

    This story first hit just a few days ago. OnStar has responded to what sounds like a public outcry by completely reversing its position and promising not to track owners who are off contract (tracking is necessary for OnStar to provide its services to its contracted customers). This all happened in only a few days. 

    This is the market at work. If some people are satisfied and trust OnStar to hold up their end, then they can continue being a GM customer. If not, they can vote with their money and shop elsewhere. 

    Had the government stepped in, we would have to wait years for their one-size-fits-all solution and no one would be happy but the influential companies writing the regs. 

    I noticed today that some grandstanding Senator has begun to push for an “investigation” of OnStar privacy violations despite the fact Congress has no business doing so.

    Lastly, GM is not the only manufacturer that does this. OnStar is available on some non-GM makes, and some other manufacturers have their own version. If I remember correctly, Mercedes has one, as does Acura (AcuraLink), and many other companies, mostly luxury makes. The key seems to be if they can unlock your doors, they can affect almost any other computer controlled component in the car. 

    Tech can be a wonderful thing, but like most things, can be turned to nefarious purposes, too. 

    Incidentally, OnStar adds about $600 to the price of a new car and they have the nerve to charge a monthly fee on top of that. At least you get your first year or so of Big Brother tracking you for free!

  5. You have a choice you know. The create advertising for stuff that they need to convince you that you need. I just bought a 25 mile per gallon 93 toyota previa for 700 bucks. No on star, no allwheel drive, no rust, no debt and probably less than the cost of the onstar’s additional cost to new vehicles. The best part is that the previa motors get rebuilt or replaced at about 400k and mine only has 245k. Replacement engines on ebay go for about 500 and trannies for a mere 300 bucks… All this lo-jack free, debt free, terms of service free traveling for about the cost of the first four payments on a new car. (that still won’t survive much past the 200k mile mark) Oh, and just so I don’t get lost I did install my 50 dollar tom tom gps on the windshield.

    • Hi Rich,

      I’m with you, amigo! I have a ’98 Nissan Frontier that I expect to be driving for another 5-8 years (and a 2002 model of the same truck as back-up). I bought them for about $7k each, so have about $14k in them and the ’98 is still worth about $4,000 (and the 2002 probably close to $10k)… no payments, no debt…. leave me free to spend my extra cash on fun stuff, like my motorcycle projects!

  6. Love your columns! Just want to say that this is one of many reasons I decided not to buy another car after our Windstar died. Other reasons are:

    Insurance costs way too much. I can afford it but it’s not worth it.
    The sticker price is way too much. I can afford it but it’s not worth it.
    The incessant beeping if you forget to put on your seatbelt, even when you’re just moving the car out of the driveway.
    The air bags scare the hell out of me and there’s no option to disable them. Parents are forced to put baby sits in the back and facing the other way so you can’t see if your child is dead or alive.
    It is a lot cheaper to take a taxi – I’ve been using my feet and taxis and rental cars for 5 years and saved thousands in insurance and repair costs.
    The stupid laws. You’re not allowed to use your cell phone but have you ever tried to figure out satellite radio while you’re driving? It would be easier to set up a laptop on the passenger seat.
    Most cars are just plain ugly. No imagination and they’re all the same colors as the other companies are putting out.
    Growing frustration with the fact that we’ve basically been using the same engine design for 100 years or so.
    Many more but I won’t take up too much space. Thanks!

    • Thanks, HH!

      I agree with you, too. And I test drive these things every week (new cars). Very few have any appeal on personality/soul level – and those that do are either too much to buy or give the parasites (government) one more way to stick their hands in my pocket, which I won’t allow. So I buy used/old – which is fine for me, because I just prefer old stuff anyhow – and would drive old stuff, even if it weren’t for the issues we’ve been discussing.

    • Beware of rental cars. They have a similar system, regardless of brand. They can even fine you for speeding when you turn the car back in. Read you rental contract.
      GM is now advertising On-Star for other brands as an add-on. Just drive in and they will hook you up to Big Brother
      I guess eventually they will even do it to mopeds and bicycles, not to mention walking.
      Don’t forget the RFID chip in your credit cards. They can be read from a distance, unless you cover them with something like the Alumawallet or the stainless steel wallet also available.

      • I wonder what will happen to no-goodniks like me who have older stuff, precomputer (and GPS/black box) stuff… ? I suppose they’ll either outlaw them or require them to be retrofitted with the Big Brother gear.

        For “safety,” of course.

    • “It is a lot cheaper to take a taxi”

      For you, it may be. For me, it’s not. I dropped my car off at a repair shop in Petersburg and caught a cab home, about 35 miles. The tab was $65. Living out in the boonies makes a car a necessity for me.

  7. The new GM Onstar TOS sounds like Facebook on wheels. Even our TV cable box can be controlled from a remote location. I called customer service for some problem we were having and she was able to turn the box off and on and tell all kinds of things about our particular box. They watch us on the road, in our homes and online. The younger generation today is growing up to believe that it’s cool to be watched. They lover their FB, Twitter, GPS mobile phones and all those reality shows. Lately our cable box has been turning off by itself it’s left on for several hours. But only if we’re not in the room. We can sit and watch tv for several hours, but leave the room and the cable box shuts off. Things that make you go hmmm…..

    • I was about to post a link to this under the heading “OnStar – Facebook on wheels”

      My Land Rover LR3 is a very smart car, but at least it keeps its information to itself.

  8. Playing devil’s advocate for a moment. GM\Onstar announced days ago that this was a proposed terms of service change, that now will not be going through, and that you can cancel onstar at any time and they will “sever the latent connection.” Now, I don’t know if I believe that, but the terms of service Eric is speaking of no longer exist. I think an addendum is in order.

  9. ” … not just that GM can watch you without you knowing, but GM can also disable your car while you’re driving. And the cops know this and the cops regularly ask GM to do this for them.”

    What creeped me out most about Eric’s column was that Onstar INTERRUPTED HIS RADIO.

    Picture this. You’re bopping down the highway, carefree, beautiful day, “Bad To The Bone” blasting on the radio. Suddenly the music cuts off. You cuss loudly. A voice intones, “Sorry, We don’t care for George Thorogood. How about some nice Montovani?”

  10. As I see it, human behavior is fixed in the sense that, as a population, people behave in predictable ways down through the ages.

    2000 years ago Sallust said, “Most men do not desire liberty; most only wish for a just master.” This statement captures the essence of 99% of all humans: People prefer a benign slavery, a hierarchical plantation on which all individuals have their place and live their lives in predetermined ways. Without such structure, most people fear they would suffer mightily if left to their own devices. Those who wish to rule the plantation actively cultivate people’s fear of their neighbors and fear of self-reliance, just as shamans of prehistory secured their parasitic position by frightening their tribe with tales of angry gods.

    In this milieu there are a few people who understand the underlying reality of the slave plantation. We cannot change the system because it is overwhelmingly preferred by our family, our friends, and our neighbors. We can only hope to make the best of a sad, biologically-determined social reality.

    For what it is worth, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is, while fictional, the best text on political science that exists.

  11. I still remember my first time seeing an advert for Onstar. Horrified disbelief. I was like, They’re kidding, right? Right? Or maybe I missed the first part of this, where they explain that Onstar is the (Orwellian) wave of the future, or something. Because, come on! This is America! This is an American carmaker! They would *never* … would they?

    Live and learn.

    “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.” It would be interesting to see GM sales figures since the advent of Onstar. They couldn’t have dropped too much or Onstar would be a dead duck.

    Guess I’d better quit waiting for the outraged rebellion of an American car-buying public, infuriated at this abominable intrusion on the part of GM.

    Still, a girl can dream, can’t she?

    Be even more interesting — not that GM would release the information — to learn how many buyers have in fact bought the car and disabled the Onstar. “Love the car, hate the Onstar.” POW! SMASH! CRUNCH!

    • You’ve hit the nail on the head! The worrying thing is not OnStar (or the TSA, etc.) as such – but rather the sickening American indifference and acceptance of these things.

      All it would take to end the creeping tyranny – peacefully – would be for about 20 percent of the general public to just say no.

      No, I won’t buy your car, until you make OnStar optional.

      No, I won’t buy an airplane ticket ever again, until I can board a flight without being treated like an incoming felony arrestee.

      Simple.

      But the lowing cattle out there – drooling over their potato chips and beeeeeer, care more about tonight’s game than they do about preserving their liberty.

      • Hi – Found this post via Lew Rockwell.

        I agree 100%. It’s the indifference that is disturbing. The way people just roll over because the government tells them they have to. It’s quite disturbing.

        And as far as OnStar goes, Glenn Beck was railing about this a couple of years ago – not just that GM can watch you without you knowing, but GM can also disable your car while you’re driving. And the cops know this and the cops regularly ask GM to do this for them. Which, wouldn’t be so bad or surprising if GM just told them “no” all the time… but GM IS OWNED BY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT!!!!

        Nuts.

        • Hi Johnny,

          Yup. The worst part is the passive acceptance. I still can’t believe how readily most people just …. submit to being fondled and scanned at airports. That, to me, was a test “roll out.” To see how the public would react (or not) to what I call Submission Training. I expect such searches to be expanded to numerous public venues, including public buildings, then shopping malls and so on.

          But hey, I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m freeeeeeeeee.

          Right?

          • Eric, it’s worse than passive acceptance in many cases. Our fellow Amerikans frequently ask for Big Brother. Remember, Jeff and Leslie Jacobs were proud to be the “pioneers” that had the VeriChip implanted in their arms. The even did this to their 14 year old son! Before VeriChip became PositiveID and let the publicity die down, they claimed “thousands” of Amerikans had them implanted.

            Now Wal-Mart is covertly putting RFID tags in clothing, we have “smart” credit cards that will be “no swipe”, etc. Pretty soon it will be like a scene from Minority Report, where you walk through the archway at the mall, the robo-scanner says “Good morning Mr. Peters, I sense your shirt is over four years old. The Gap has menswear on sale for up 30% off!”

            Some Amerikan dumb-ass will want to be first in line to have a blue tooth, wi-fi, GPS enabled inter-cranial sail fawn implant. CBS will not only cover all the advantages of it, but which tattoo is the most stylish to cover the scar. And once Lindsay Lohan get’s one, every 14 year old dingbat out there will be begging daddy for one……

            • I think you’re right…

              It’s as clearly coming at us as a bullet train five miles distant…

              I will become a Savage and live out my days on the reservation – if that’s possible.

          • Eric, I seem to recall a situation here in Amerika right after the War of Federal Aggression: there were some “savages” trying to live out their days on their “reservation”. Some wealthy elitists and tax feeders decided they needed land to build a railroad or three.

            So rather than buying that land like James J. Hill did, they went back on their word and sent in Sheridan, Sherman and Custer. They exterminated the “savages” (including women and children), the Bison they ate and took the “reservation” by force.

            I’m confident that the current crop of tax-feeders would view us would-be “savages” the same way if we dared despoil one of “their” biodiversity reserves with a tent and a campfire.

  12. Eric, I echo your sentiments here.

    My relatives have a new GM product, and they are tickled by the technology. Granted, they’re a bit Luddite in many things (which is admirable, IMO). It’s their first exposure to the whiz-bang capabilities of a system like OnStar. They about fell over when they learned that they could call OnStar to request to have their doors unlocked, if locked out.

    Did you know that the OnStar service sends the owners automated e-mails that, e.g., remind one to change the oil due to sufficient mileage accumulation? How does the service know that the odo has advanced far enough to require scheduled service? We know how.

    • Yes, they can be disabled. In fact, after buying my used 2008 GM vehicle this summer with an inactive Onstar system, the first thing I did was go online and search the message boards for information about disabling that big brother box. Other people had done it, and I did too. The power and antenna cables are now physically unplugged. I will remove the box completely if I ever get around to it.

    • Yes, the system can be easily and completely disabled simply by disconnecting the power to the OnStar unit, which is essentially a cell phone in a box. Just Google your particular car model and OnStar Control Unit or ask your dealer or mechanic.

      Note that this will not disable the Navigation system or anything else as it has its own GPS receiver that doesn’t transmit your location at all (yes, OnStar is redundant in that sense).

      Sometimes there is even a fuse you can pull to kill it.

  13. Eric, Government Motors is obviously doing this “for the children” and for the security of the Fatherland…oops…Homeland that is. Of course if they can sell your data to the state and the insurance cartels all the while circumventing your right to privacy with their cute little TOS (should read POS) that you’ve implicitly consented to (the same way we implicitly agree to a prostate check by buying an airline ticket), so much the better.

  14. I love big brother! Praise be to big brother for keeping us safe!

    Eric, you need to turn yourself in to the local authorities. It will be for your own good. Only big brother knows what is in our best interest. If you are not careful, something bad might happen.

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