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Is OnStar turning your car against you? Senator Schumer thinks so.

Senator Schumer of New York criticizes in-vehicle emergency tool OnStar because it collects information about its users even after they cancel the service. It's the latest flareup over whether new technologies are violating users' privacy rights.

By Staff writer / September 26, 2011

The General Motors OnStar command center is shown in Detroit in this file photo.

Carlos Osorio/AP/File


OnStar, the in-vehicle emergency service, is the latest technology coming under fire from privacy advocates who say it is unfairly conducing surveillance on its users without their permission.

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Several US senators, led by Charles Schumer (D) of New York, are asking the company to abandon the practice, which he and others say is becoming pervasive. Senator Schumer is also asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate OnStar following the company’s announcement last week that it will continue to track the movement and speed of users even after they cancel the service, which is available by subscription.

Apple, Facebook, and Google have also come under fire this year over concerns about unwanted surveillance. The problems are the product of technological advancements that have outpaced privacy regulations, say analysts, with OnStar offering further evidence of how companies can collect data about their customers.

OnStar is owned by General Motors and, according to the company, is available in 40 2011 model vehicles. More than 6 million people have the service, the company says.

In a letter sent to OnStar's president, Linda Marshall, Schumer called the policy a “brazen invasion,” particularly because the company acknowledges it will maintain a connection with the user’s vehicle even after the user opts out of the service.

OnStar’s two-way location technology is marketed for its safety benefits: helping locate roadside services, provide alternate driving instructions, and sending help in case of an emergency. A spokesperson for the service did not respond by deadline to requests via e-mail and phone for comment.

Other companies have been criticized for not telling users if and how they collect personal data. For those that do, the warnings are sometimes in small print, critics say.

In April, for example, independent researchers said Apple and Google store the location history of iPhone and Android users, respectively. Both companies denied the charge.

Privacy advocates say the challenge is that embedding mobile software that protects user data is more costly. Companies failed to prioritize these kinds of protections when web browsers, smart phones, and digital tablets were being designed. That means mitigating the problem after the fact would involve changes far beyond amending user agreements. It would require redesigning the core structure of the technology.


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