New OnStar policy draws privacy concerns

Consumer Reports News: September 21, 2011 05:53 PM

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GM's telematic service, OnStar, has been sending notices to subscribers of pending changes—effective December—to its privacy statement. But the proposed modifications and clarifications have already started a stir among some users and privacy advocates.

UPDATE Sept. 22, 2011: OnStar has e-mailed an official response regarding its new terms and conditions of service, maintaining “OnStar has and always will give our customers the choice in how we use their data. We’ve also been very open with our customers about changes in services and privacy terms.” A video posted on YouTube by OnStar features Joanne Finnorn, vice president of subscriber services at OnStar, explaining the changes to the company's terms and conditions of service.

Among the three major changes—which include further clarification of the types of subscriber data that is collected and how it is safeguarded—are two that detail how and when the data are collected, as well as what OnStar may do with that information. Specifically, the new subscriber privacy policy says:

Unless the Data Connection in your Vehicle is deactivated, information about your Vehicle may continue to be collected even if you do not have a Plan.

In essence, that allows the company to continue tracking OnStar-equipped vehicles even after a subscriber has canceled membership of the service. Deactivating the Data Connection, or wireless data modem, and stopping the data collection requires members to contact an "OnStar Advisor."

Moreover, the changed policy now alerts OnStar members:

We may share or sell anonymized data (including location, speed, and safety belt usage) with third parties for any purpose...

Although "anonymized data" is said to be stripped of any information that can be used to tie specific data to a specific OnStar user, some members concerned about their personal privacy are already questioning how that can be. Jonathan Zdziarski, a forensics scientist and OnStar user in Ohio, reports on his blog that he's already canceled his OnStar membership and "repeatedly" requested its wireless data connection to be severed.

OnStar officials explained to several outlets, including Wired, that maintaining the wireless connection, in part, makes it "easier to re-enroll" the vehicle into the telematic service—say when an owner changes his or her mind or if the vehicle is sold to a new owner. And the data OnStar collects has never been sold to a third party. Yet.

Still, Adam Denison, a spokesman for the General Motors subsidiary, tells Wired:

We hear from organizations periodically requesting our information.

As mentioned in OnStar's policy and by its officials, some possible uses for OnStar's anonymized data include local and state transportation agencies that wish to study traffic flow on certain highways at specific times of the day.

Official OnStar YouTube video featuring Joanne Finnorn, Vice President of Subscriber Services, clarifying the recent changes in OnStar's terms and conditions policies.

OnStar Privacy Statement (Effective as of Dec. 2011) (PDF) []
OnStar to sell customer location and other data [Atlanta Journal Constitution]
OnStar Set to Start Tracking, Sharing More Data From Cars [Wall Street Journal]
OnStar Tracks Your Car Even When You Cancel Service [Wired]
OnStar Begins Spying On Customers’ GPS Location For Profit [Jonathan Zdziarski's Blog]

Paul Eng

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