What's Wrong With This Picture: Onstar Puts Us At Ease Edition

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

OnStar’s Privacy & Compliance Officer Jane Speelman has an “I can’t let you do that Dave” moment in a Fastlane webchat titled “Onstar Debunks Privacy Misconceptions.” Yikes!

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Shaker Shaker on Nov 14, 2009

    I wonder if Ms. Speilman [sic] would tell us how to disable OnStar, or if that action would in any way violate the new vehicle warranty.

  • Geozinger Geozinger on Nov 14, 2009

    Want to disable OnStar? Stop paying for it. Of course, that won't stop the telemarketing calls, but you won't be able to access OnStar or they you. On a related note, every car company now uses some sort of 'black box' to collect different kinds of information, this data is being collected on you every time you turn the key. And more importantly, the data collected in those devices is subject to differing federal, state/provincial and local laws, of which very few people are aware of what rights they have under these laws. Not a lot of disclosure or discussion on these laws, but could affect you a great deal more than any 'observation' by OnStar.

  • George B George B on Nov 14, 2009

    As starbird80 said, it should be possible to disable OnStar by disconnecting the antenna it uses to communicate over the cellular network. OnStar may be too well integrated into other features of a GM car to just pull the fuse, but disconnecting the antenna should render it deaf and mute. I'd be curious how long it takes to overwrite data on a car "black box". Could someone put enough miles/hours of operation on the car after a crash Ferris Bueller style to overwrite the data before lawyers can get involved?

    • Geozinger Geozinger on Nov 14, 2009

      OnStar has redundant antennas (antennae?). Nowadays most cars equipped with OnStar have the 'rubber ducky' on the roof, but I think that's mostly for the built-in phone. Depending upon which model, the second antenna could be an actual antenna or even a window. On our 2004 Pontiac the right rear window was the secondary antenna. As for the 'black boxes', it's my understanding that they're recording something like the last 5-10 seconds of actual conditions before an incident. There was a somewhat famous case in Canada several years ago, where a young man was convicted of vehicular homicide after provincial authorities were able to obtain information from the vehicle's 'black box' proving that he was traveling well above the speed limit right before impact. I'm not sure if there is a way to 'overwrite' any information on these devices, or if there's a way to disable one without disabling the car. I believe these boxes are used in warranty claims also, but don't quote me on that. I once jokingly mentioned to a service writer once that I should do a 'Ferris Buehler" and wind back my odometer to get a longer warranty period. He laughed at the thought and mentioned that odometers don't go backwards (as they are electronic) and that they have 'other ways' of verifying mileage. Black Box? Sounds reasonable to me.

  • YotaCarFan YotaCarFan on Nov 14, 2009

    Removing the OnStar antenna would just keep it from communicating with the mother ship over the air (cellular system). The GPS antenna would still be intact and usable by the system to calculate and store your speed for later retrieval (assuming this feature was designed in). Cutting the GPS antenna would only be an option if the car did not have a factory navigation system. As geozinger stated, cars nowadays have data recorders. The collected data (time graphs of engine speed, vehicle speed, brake application, headlight status, seatbelt status, gyro, etc.) are available to law enforcement via subpoena. I have no idea how many seconds/minutes of info they capture. Also, if someone in the car has a cellphone, vehicle speed and itinerary can be roughly determined based on cell tower hand-off time stamps. Regarding doing a Ferris Buehler on the odometer: There are typically tamper evident seals on the instrument meter assembly to prevent access to the odometer's electronics, and the electronics are designed so the numbers cannot be decremented. I would imagine that the engine control module (computer) also keeps track of mileage as a backup, since it has access to wheel sensors used for ABS, and its data could be compared with the odometer's to verify accuracy. Some cars will store error codes in the event speed signal lines are cut (newer Toyotas with nav do this, likely b/c many owners were cutting wires to bypass the nav nanny lockout that engaged when the vehicle is moving).