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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.

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“All these amazing new technologies ... were not designed to go the extra mile and work in a privacy friendly way. In fact, it’s often much more convenient to collect more information about where the device is and where it is going than to collect less,” says Peter Eckersley, technology projects director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

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Much of the problem has to do with global-positioning software (GPS) that companies use to create a two-way communication with consumers. On one hand, it helps provide street directions or tell users where they are at any given moment. On the other hand, personal data on shopping habits or browser search history can also be stored without the user’s knowledge.

Companies like Facebook argue that tracking these data helps the company tailor the user’s online experience, directing the user to content of interest. But privacy advocates like Mr. Eckersley say companies are really interested in building data banks they can sell or use as leverage in partnerships with outside media partners.

“There’s no question that industry views this giant network of surveillance devices as a great commercial opportunity,” he says. The danger, he says, is that the information may “accidentally” be accessed by people – including the government, Internet stalkers, or hackers – who can have more nefarious intentions.

Regulation remains far on the horizon. There is no federal law that explicitly inhibits companies from using location tracking of its users.

One reason is the speed at which technology is moving, says Chenxi Wang, an analyst with Forrester Research in Foster City, Calif. “The privacy laws and regulations have not caught up with the technology,” she says.

But the spread of smartphones and tablets could create pressure for reform. Forrester Research forecasts that one in every three adults in the US will own a tablet by 2015. “Consumers are more aware of the [privacy] issue now, but whether they are turned off by the location tracking still remains to be seen,” says Ms. Wang.

For now, consumers concerned about privacy have to opt out of the digital realm or invest in software that blocks data storage. Neither, however, is likely to be a adequate solution, says Eckersley, who says a more realistic answer will come only from within the industry itself.

“We need to put pressure on what we want to see regarding privacy regulation. That is going to create better incentives for the industry to do the extra engineering legwork that is required to give us these cool new features based on what we’re doing in a way that doesn’t keep a record of where we were and what we do and what we read,” he says.

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