By on September 24, 2011

Concerns over privacy have haunted GM’s OnStar business for as long as it’s been around, and responses like this video have become something of an annual routine for OnStar’s executives. The latest round of furor involves changes to OnStar’s policies, which the New York Times describes thusly

The first regards what happens when a customer cancels the service. Until now, when OnStar service stopped, so did the vehicle’s two-way communications system. As of Dec. 1, however, that will not necessarily be the case. Vehicles of owners who no longer subscribe could still be monitored via the system’s still-active two-way cellular link.

The second policy change concerns the potential use of the data collected by OnStar, which includes information like the vehicle’s speed and location, current odometer reading, driver seat-belt use and air-bag deployment. Under the new terms, OnStar reserves the right to share that information with other companies and organizations, even data culled from motorists who no longer subscribe to the service but who have left the two-way communications connection open.

Of course, OnStar says GM customers can opt out of the service, but it’s making the case that by only sharing anonymous data, it can limit meaningful privacy concerns. But OnStar doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and as it continues to sell Americans on the notion that security is worth sacrificing some sense of privacy for, it will find itself increasingly pulled into a national debate.

OnStar’s execs are clearly walking a line here, as there’s no doubt OnStar-provided data is used in a number of ways that they argue is intended to benefit the customer. Monitoring usage patterns in the Chevy Volt is one example. Allowing vehicle owners to spy on their kids and spouses is another. But by pushing these services, OnStar finds itself at the cutting edge of a profound national debate on the balance between privacy and security that has been simmering just below the national consciousness in the decade since 9/11.

OnStar is clearly aligning itself with the side of security, not only offering nanny services to its users, but now giving them nanny powers over people who use their cars as well. In the short term, this has been a strong play: history shows that OnStar has picked the winning side in the debate, as most security/privacy tradefoffs since 9/11 have been decided in favor of security. But as measures like pay-per-mile vehicle tracking gain political momentum (the talk in DC is that government tracking of every vehicle is “unavoidable” in the middle-to-long-term), a backlash may well be brewing.

The problem with picking any one side of a fundamental political tradeoff is that eventually your side overreaches, sparking a backlash. When pay-per-mile taxation becomes a serious policy proposal, a political near-inevitability in the next ten years, all of the slippery concessions to security-over-privacy that led up to government tracking of every vehicle in America will be seen in a very different light. OnStar (and its analogues, which are spreading throughout the industry) will clearly be identified as a poster boy for the tradeoff between privacy and security, and faced with mandatory government tracking, it’s hard to see Americans remaining in love with the idea of voluntary tracking. Already the backlash is brewing, and public responses to privacy concerns will be a fact of life for firms like OnStar. But then, that’s just a part of the cost of doing business when you’re selling services that prey on paranoia, and asks customers to trust your benevolent gaze more than the often-terrifying randomness of the universe.

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11 Comments on “Onstar Responds To Privacy Concerns. Again. Still....”

  • avatar

    It would be ironic if people would complain about this on Facebook.

    The privacy wars have already been lost. Mark Zuckerberg, OnStar, the wireless carriers and the lot for the win.

    So many who claim to be fearful of government interference will happily surrender their privacy to corporations that have no accountability to them whatsoever. I avoid services such as Facebook because I don’t want to be monitored by somebody’s private equity investment, but I’m obviously in the minority.

    • 0 avatar

      I disagree with that. well partially anyway. In my mind, there’s a world of difference between what a person willingly divulges on facebook and what onstar does to keep tabs on you. The difference is obviously choice.

      • 0 avatar

        The difference is obviously choice.

        Nobody put a gun to anyone’s head and forced them to buy a GM car.

        In any case, the issue isn’t one of choice but one of a general lack of interest among the public in maintaining personal privacy. Americans will happily give away their privacy to any company who will allow them to post pictures of their babies and pets on the internet.

        There’s no backlash to this. If anything, there is the opposite of a backlash; the lack of privacy is being fully embraced and is taking its place within popular culture.

      • 0 avatar

        “Nobody put a gun to anyone’s head and forced them to buy a GM car.”

        This is true but when an owner of a gm car chooses to discontinue the service their choice is being ignored when they keep the gathering that information.

        As for the rest of your post, well sadly that’s pretty accurate.

    • 0 avatar

      pch101 – I also don’t trust private equity investment. I don’t trust government either. The difference between private equity investment and government is that a)government is a monopoly and b) private equity investment doesn’t have its own tax funded armed enforcement agency.

      I thought I’d do a quick Bing (not google) of the Department of Education California swat raid. has blogged a decent account of this where the DoE denies this was over a defaulted student loan, but rather was a criminal investigation – which could be a defaulted student loan. Three months later, it appears to have blown over with no public information I could find on the nature of that investigation, distressingly confirming pch101’s second thread entry. The question shouldn’t be whether it was or wasn’t a student loan raid, but rather, why, as long as we have a serviceable FBI, should DoE have a NSFW’n Swat team and why should we be paying for it? And for those wondering how this affects all things automobile, it’s like a canary in a mineshaft, symptomatic of larger problems.

      edit – observes it was a search for student loan related fraud

  • avatar

    There has been an ongoing debate over privacy vs. security, and security usually does win. Yet I’m not sure OnStar has been part of the debate. One is not required to buy from GM.

    While I tend to favor privacy, this whole OnStar = Big Brother thing seems to have a tin foil hat quality to it.

    The interesting thing to me is how we employ slippery slope arguments. The slipperiness seems to be subjective and directly proportional to how much one things the SS argument buttresses their opinions.

    BTW “They” know if you read TTAC.

  • avatar

    Don’t like it? Cancel your OnStar and disconnect the power plug behind the little door in the roof. That should fix ’em.

  • avatar

    “OnStar finds itself at the cutting edge of a profound national debate on the balance between privacy and security that has been simmering just below the national consciousness in the decade since 9/11.”

    yeah…I would argue that the whole sacrificing privacy and security has been going on a lot longer than 9/11. The most obvious of pushes for security has been made for the sake of the drug war.

  • avatar

    Somehow this is the UAW’s fault.

  • avatar

    I own both my car and my pair of wirecutters. Problem solved!

    I don’t on a GM car, though, so I don’t know if OnStar shares an antenna lead with some communication service that I actually want (such as GPS). But I’ve had this concern about OnStar since the first time I considered a GM car a few years ago. It’s certainly a mark in the “disadvantage” column for GM vehicles.

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