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Is OnStar Spying On You?

Interesting blog post from Jonathan Zdziarski today that illustrates an example of the ongoing Geolocation issues which we have discussed here, here, here, and here.  I also gave a CLE presentation to the ABA on this issue.  Details here.

It seems that big brother (in this instance, GM) is watching you whether you like it or not.

Oh, and they reserved their right to sell what they learned from watching you to third-party marketers and law enforcement.

What makes this Geolocation issue so interesting is the ongoing privacy tug-of-war between customers and corporations wishing to cash in on the treasure trove of information they collect when providing Geolocation technologies.

While I cannot speak to the issue Jonathan Zdziarski is having, he brings up an interesting scenario that may become all-too-familiar:

  1. OnStar issues a new Terms of Service;
  2. The Terms of Service permits OnStar to collect information about seat belt usage, tire pressure, etc.; and
  3. The new Terms of Service permits OnStar to sell this information to third-parties (including law enforcement) anonymously.

Mr. Zdziarski  argues that GPS information is never “anonymous.”  I do not know whether this is true or not, but if it is, it raises a troubling point.

Money quote from the blog:

What is more profitable to OnStar that your personal GPS data could be used for? Hmm, well how about the obvious – tracking you and your vehicle. It would be extremely profitable to be able to identify all vehicles within OnStar’s network that frequently speed, and provide law enforcement “traffic services” the ability to trace them back to their homes or businesses, as well as tell them where to set up speed traps. Or perhaps insurance companies who want to check and make sure you’re wearing your seat belt, or automatically give you rate increases if you speed, even if you’re never in an accident? How about identifying all individuals who shop at certain stores, and using that to determine whose back yard to put the next God-awful Wal-Mart store? How about employers who purchase these records from these third parties to see where their employees (or prospective employees) travel to (and how fast), sleaze bag lawyers who want to subpoena these records to use against you if you’re ever sued, government agencies who want to monitor you, marketing firms who want to spam you, and a long list of other not-so-squeaky-clean people who use (and abuse) existing online, credit card, financial, credit, and other analytics to destroy our privacy?

Add to this OnStar’s use policy of your personal information – the stuff that does identify who you are and ties it to your GPS records. While I have no problem using my personal information in events of an emergency, OnStar also uses my information 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“.

There are laws that protect cell phone customers and cable customers from having their information shared.  It would be interesting whether someone could argue that this is a communications device akin to a cell phone that requires consent active prior to disclosure.

A final note and perhaps the stickiest issue: even if you opt-out and cancel your service, OnStar can still apparently track you.  From the blog:

To add insult to a slap in the face, the company insists they will continue collecting and selling this personal information even after you cancel your service, unless you specifically shut down the data connection to the vehicle after canceling.

We’ll continue to monitor this issue as it developments.

UPDATE (9/20/11): Well, that didn’t take long.  Wired got confirmation of this change.

Have any questions?  Contact me.

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