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OnStar backs down over GPS tracking of ex-customers

Slams brakes after consumer revolt

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OnStar has backed down from a proposed change in its terms and conditions that would have seen the vehicle info system collecting car monitoring data on former customers.

The OnStar system, operated as part of General Motors, embeds a mobile phone and GPS in customer’s cars and relays a constant stream of data back to the company recording basic speed and location, whether the driver is wearing a seat belt, and tire pressure, as well as reporting accidents. This latter function is the system’s principal selling point, and numerous lives have been saved by the car alerting emergency services that a crash has occurred.

But last week OnStar decided to change its terms and conditions, so that if a customer cancelled the service it would still collect the data. To make matters worse it retained the right to sell it to any third party - unless it received a specific opt-out request. Such information would be a valuable commodity for advertisers, but under the new terms OnStar could conceivably have sold the data to law enforcement looking to issue tickets or insurance investigators examining crash claims.

The move provoked something of a storm among the public, and prompted Democratic senators Al Franken of Minnesota, Chris Coons of Delaware, and Charles Schumer of New York to contact the company about its policy, the latter calling it “one of the most brazen invasions of privacy in recent memory” and suggesting a Federal Trade Commission investigation. Now, barely a week later, OnStar has abandoned the proposed changes.

“We realize that our proposed amendments did not satisfy our subscribers,” OnStar president Linda Marshall said in a statement. “This is why we are leaving the decision in our customers’ hands. We listened, we responded and we hope to maintain the trust of our customers.”

While the company has backed down on its initial proposal, the move has also sparked an investigation by some customers into what OnStar can do with their private data under the current terms and conditions.

“I’m glad to see OnStar responding to its customers, however simply amending their terms and conditions to stop monitoring a vehicle after the user cancels is not enough to satisfy the level of privacy OnStar customers received prior to these updates,” writes forensic scientist, customer, and part-time hacker Jonathan Zdziarski.

“To win back the respect of the many customers who must have canceled over the new terms, OnStar will need to make a full 180 and agree not to collect customer GPS information “for any purpose, at any time”, but only when the customer would expect it to be collected, as the old contract enforced.” ®

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