US senator wants FTC to put heat on "brazen" OnStar for privacy changes

OnStar says it will track customers even after they quit using service

US Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission to get the agency to investigate recent changes made to navigation and emergency services company OnStar made to its privacy practices.

The stink, in a nutshell, arose as OnStar last week said it would continue to collect information about customers of its onboard auto services even after their subscription ends - unless specifically instructed by the consumer not to. In the past OnStar would have ended such tracking when a subscription ended. OnStar typically collects data about customers' location, speed, driving habits and odometer mileage.  

OnStar also said that it now reserves the right to sell data collected on the driving habits of former and current customers to other companies and organizations, including a driver's location, speed, odometer reading, seat-belt use and air-bag deployment.

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From the OnStar privacy statement:

The following key changes were made to our January 2011 Privacy Statement:

  • We have added more detailed information about the information we collect about you and about your Vehicle, including how we collect your information, what we do with it and how we share it. For example, unless the Data Connection in your Vehicle is deactivated, information about your Vehicle may continue to be collected even if you do not have a Plan.
  • In addition to other purposes set out in the prior version of the Privacy Statement, we may use the information we collect about you and your Vehicle to improve the quality of our Service and offerings and may share the information we collect with law enforcement or other public safety officials, credit card processors and/or third parties we contract with who conduct joint marketing initiatives with OnStar.
  • Finally, we have added additional information about how OnStar safeguards your personal information.

Schumer, who also wrote to OnStar, called the company's new policy represented a brazen, almost unheard-of invasion of the privacy of potentially millions of drivers. Also, in his letter to the FTC, Schumer called for an investigation into whether OnStar's new policy constituted an unfair trade practice under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

"By tracking drivers even after they've cancelled their service, OnStar is attempting one of the most brazen invasions of privacy in recent memory," said Schumer. "I urge OnStar to abandon this policy and for FTC to immediately launch a full investigation to determine whether the company's actions constitute an unfair trade practice."

According to Schumer six million American drivers use OnStar.  Through the use of GPS technology and a two-way connection between the car and the company, OnStar is able to track drivers' locations and give them alternative driving directions, emergency response in the case of an accident, and a host of other services. Most new GM vehicles come standard with OnStar and drivers are often given 3 months of service free when they purchase a car installed with the service.

Schumer said such policy changes put consumers at risk for having sensitive personal data collected and shared without their knowledge.  Although OnStar claims that it will anonymize any consumer data before selling it, hackers have made it abundantly clear how even anonymized, aggregated data can be matched up to identify individual users, he said.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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