OnStar: Big Brother's Eye in the Sky

Jonathan I. Locker
by Jonathan I. Locker
onstar big brothers eye in the sky

Ever since the Model T hit the silver screen, evading the long arm of the law has been a cinematic theme. From the General Lee outrunning Boss Hogg, to Smokey being outwitted by Burt Reynolds' mustache, the public imagination has always associated fast cars with police pursuit. While the majority of motorists would never dream of trying to outrun the long arm of the law, soon, they won't have to. It'll be resting on their shoulder. Consider OnStar…

OnStar is a telemetry system providing a central data bank with real-time data on virtually every system in your car, including GPS. OnStar's computer knows where you were, when you were there, and how fast you went. It knows if and when you applied the brakes, if and when the air bags deployed, and what speed you were going at the time. It knows if and when your car was serviced.

OnStar operators can determine if you have a passenger in the front seat (airbag detection). All interactions with OnStar's operators are automatically recorded (hence the commercials). By the same token, under certain conditions, OnStar can switch on your GM car's microphone remotely and record any and all sounds within the vehicle (i.e. conversations). But wait, there's more…

As of 2009, customers who upgrade to OnStar's "Safe & Sound" plan automatically receive the "Stolen Vehicle Slowdown" service. (Yes, it's an "opt out" deal.) If the OnStar-equipped vehicle is reported stolen and law enforcement has "established a clear line of sight of the stolen vehicle," the police may ask OnStar to slow it down remotely.

Many customers find OnStar immensely reassuring; their guardian e-angel. No question: OnStar has saved lives and provided its customers with valuable services. Otherwise, they wouldn't be in business. But what if…

The police are investigating a crime. They ask OnStar where your car was on a certain date and time, to corroborate an alibi. Or what if you're in a crash and the other guy's attorney would like to know how fast you were driving when you ran the red light? Would OnStar surrender the information? "OnStar is required to locate the car to comply with legal requirements, including valid court orders showing probable cause in criminal investigations." And OnStar may use gathered information to "protect the rights, property, or safety of you or others."

Imagine the following scenario. The FBI shows up at OnStar master command and tells them your car's been stolen by a terrorist, who may be using it to commit a crime at this very moment. Contacting the owner is out of the question; the owner may also be a terrorist. What does OnStar do? They cooperate with the FBI and give them everything they've got on your car. No warrant needed and no notification to you. Hell, you may not even have the service enabled.

In other words, you not only have to trust OnStar to protect your privacy, you have to trust the police not to ask the questions in the first place.

The Constitution of the United States protects us from the heavy hand of government. However, when it comes to protection from private entities, it does little. Into this void, multiple privacy laws have entered, creating a farrago of local, state, and federal laws which provide limited and haphazard protection to citizens. Whatever privacy protection these laws provide are usually nullified when companies violate them in "good faith" (e.g. while assisting the authorities.)

So who is going to stop the government from monitoring your car? The Bill of Rights protects you from an unreasonable search and seizure; the government can not take what belongs to you without a warrant. OnStar can owns the information they collect about your car. In short, there is nothing to stop the police or OnStar from using the information you paid for against you.

And the next step is even more insidious. Imagine GPS speed limiters which only allow you to go the speed limit based upon a map uploaded into your car's navigation system. Now Sammy Hagar will only be driving 55 no matter how hard he stomps on the go pedal. This is the ultimate assault on pistonheads. The only place where driving will be fun will be on the track– if OnStar and/or the car's manufacturer (e.g. the Japanese GT-R) let you.

There's only one sensible response to this trend: boycott vehicles equipped with OnStar, even if you don't sign up for the service. (Remember: it can be remotely enabled.) If customers actively avoid vehicles that spy on them, manufacturers will have to stop installing the monitoring software and hardware. And law enforcement agencies and prosecutors will have to get their information and apprehend criminals the old-fashioned way: through legally-sanctioned police work. In short, I don't buy OnStar, and neither should you.

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  • Tassos I hope y'all had a happy Thanksgiving. To answer the question, my present car is almost Ideal for such road trips, but I can think of an even better one, which has the same awesome engine in a bigger, far more luxurious vehicle.OK, let's THINK, what kind of car is best for such a trip? NOT a 911 or a Corvette, not a Body-on-frame pickup truck or SUV. It has to be a LONG vehicle, and most importantly, with a LONG WHEELBASE. It should be quite heavy so it is comfortable (in addition to the always nice to have passive safety). It should be powerful but frugal, with today's ridiculous gas prices. It should be LUXURIOUS so when you get out of it after 12 hours of driving, to feel as rested and relaxed as when you started the trip. So naturally the best candidates are FLAGSHIP LUXURY SEDANS with the above attributes. What are the best ones to choose? A 2007-2012 Lexus 460 LS would be hard to refuse, and is very reliable to boot. (in 2012 they ruined its grille), but is poor in other chores (handling, poor steering feel etc). A BMW 7 series, like the MAGNIFICENT 1998 740iL with its adequate 4.4 lt V8 and its 282 HP and 300+ LBFT torque was also an excellent cruiser AS WELL as a great (as if on rails!) Handling car, with plenty of features and luxury fit for a king inside (plus they had facrtory GPS as early as 1998, which Merc Did not then!), but it is not as reliable as you would like. I owned one from 2005 to 2017, almost 20 years old and 150k miles at the end, when I donated it. My current car is just perfect for this job, being a GLORIOUS DIESEL Merc E 320 Bluetec 2007 (I also have a 2008 twin!), it gets 35-37 MPG on long trips, which offsets the ridiculous current Diesel prices, AND its 21 Gallon tank gives you 700-800 MILES OF RANGE, so you can fill up at the lowest cost stations at your convenience. COmpared with the BMW 7 V8, its V6 actually gives you about the3 same performance at half the MPG!! Because the HP may be less (208 vs 282) BUT the TOrque can only be matched by AMG gas versions, the E55 AMG, at over 400 LBFT.If you want a little better than the above AWESOME choice, try the S350 Bluetec Diesel, 2010-2013 models. THere are very few Diesels sold in the US, so you may have to drive 4 hours to buy yours (as I had to do with both of mine), BUT it is REALLY WORTH IT.BTW, the extra benefit of the diesel MErcs, they are THE MOST RELIABLE VEHICLES I EVER DROVE, and I had plenty of Hondas and other alleged reliable cars in the past. TWO diesels, owned from 2016 and 2017, and NOTHING went wrong with them except ROUTINE Maintenance, brake pad replacement, new set of tires, NO FAILURES OF ANY KIND!If you have experienced these outstanding cruisers, tell us what you think. If NOT, try them!
  • Nrd515 I bought an '88 S10 Blazer with the 4.3. We had it 4 years and put just about 48K on it with a bunch of trips to Nebraska and S. Dakota to see relatives. It had a couple of minor issues when new, a piece of trim fell off the first day, and it had a seriously big oil leak soon after we got it. The amazinly tiny starter failed at about 40K, it was fixed under some sort of secret warranty and we got a new Silverado as a loaner. Other than that, and a couple of tires that blew when I ran over some junk on the road, it was a rock. I hated the dash instrumentation, and being built like a gorilla, it was about an inch and a half too narrow for my giant shoulders, but it drove fine, and was my second most trouble free vehicle ever, only beaten by my '82 K5 Blazer, which had zero issues for nearly 50K miles. We sold the S10 to a friend, who had it over 20 years and over 400,000 miles on the original short block! It had a couple of transmissions, a couple of valve jobs, a rear end rebuild at 300K, was stolen and vandalized twice, cut open like a tin can when a diabetic truck driver passed out(We were all impressed at the lack of rust inside the rear quarters at almost 10 years old, and it just went on and on. Ziebart did a good job on that Blazer. All three of his sons learned to drive in it, and it was only sent to the boneyard when the area above the windshield had rusted to the point it was like taking a shower when it rained. He now has a Jeep that he's put a ton of money into. He says he misses the S10's reliablity a lot these days, the Jeep is in the shop a lot.
  • Jeff S Most densely populated areas have emission testing and removing catalytic converters and altering pollution devices will cause your vehicle to fail emission testing which could effect renewing license plates. In less populated areas where emission testing is not done there would probably not be any legal consequences and the converter could either be removed or gutted both without having to buy specific parts for bypassing emissions. Tampering with emission systems would make it harder to resell a vehicle but if you plan on keeping the vehicle and literally running it till the wheels fall off there is not much that can be done if there is no emission testing. I did have a cat removed on a car long before mandatory emission testing and it did get better mpgs and it ran better. Also had a cat gutted on my S-10 which was close to 20 years old which increased performance and efficiency but that was in a state that did not require emission testing just that reformulated gas be sold during the Summer months. I would probably not do it again because after market converters are not that expensive on older S-10s compared to many of the newer vehicles. On newer vehicles it can effect other systems that are related to the operating and the running of the vehicle. A little harder to defeat pollution devices on newer vehicles with all the systems run by microprocessors but if someone wants to do it they can. This law could be addressing the modified diesels that are made into coal rollers just as much as the gasoline powered vehicles with cats. You probably will still be able to buy equipment that would modify the performance of a vehicles as long as the emission equipment is not altered.
  • ToolGuy I wonder if Vin Diesel requires DEF.(Does he have issues with Sulfur in concentrations above 15ppm?)
  • ToolGuy Presented for discussion: https://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper2/thoreau/civil.html
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