OnStar vows to track your movements forever, even if you cancel the service

OnStar -- the company that uses satellite tracking and cellular data to offer roadside assistance, disable stolen vehicles, etc -- has a new privacy policy, which states that they'll continue to track all your movements even if you cancel their service, unless you specifically opt out (cancelling the service isn't "opting out"). And they can use their records of your movements for any purpose.


    1. Most people don’t even bother taking 45 seconds to remove the badge and plate-holder advertisements the dealership sticks on their cars; would take a miracle to push them to disable the OnStar hardware.

      1. “Most people don’t even bother taking 45 seconds to remove the badge and
        plate-holder advertisements the dealership sticks on their cars”

        Not to derail this thread, but– I too have never understood why people run around with those plateholder ads.  I think, for some of them, the dealership plateholder is itself a brand that they’re proud of, like their car make and model.  A dealership plateholder proves they bought it new?

        Myself, I removed it immediately.  Plus, I’ve always wanted to remove even the make and model indicators to make mine a Pure Generic Car.  But to do it right really requires a new paint job to cover the holes left by the missing emblems.

    2. Or removing a fuse, if you prefer a non-destructive remedy. 

      Unlike phones, which are with us everywhere, I don’t have that much of an issue with cars being tracked. Phones are rarely implicated in hit and run accidents or stolen with the same repercussion as a car. As far as monitoring cars for law enforcement, the potential for abuse is so obviously large, it negates any benefit, but I don’t think I would be very upset if drivers with a documented history of high-risk driving were forced off the road, either by their insurer declining to underwrite their behavior or simply through the courts. And if drunk or impaired drivers could be identified and reported by an onboard system (accelerometers, etc.) and quickly taken off the road, I don’t see a huge issue with that. 

      You really don’t have any reasonable expectation of privacy on the road. The contents of your vehicle are safe under the 4th Amendment but the vehicle itself and your management of it is not. 

      1. So, you’re assuming that Every driver whose car is turned off will safely navigate it to the side of the road (assuming there’s a safe shoulder), and not simply leave it in the middle of the lane? Not letting the car Start is one thing, but disabling a moving vehicle is a Whole different ball of wax.

        1. Not going that far. Disabling a moving vehicle remotely is a bad idea. Alerting local authorities of the precise location and route of a possible DWI is good enough for me. 

    3. You don’t need wire cutters.  The wires (3) come out, if and only if you can locate the modem.  I have not been able to find it on my car model but the information is out there for other car models.  I am upset that Onstar is selling off/using my information (how else would places know my mileage on my car to know when I need certain work done) yet they would ignore the fact that my car got into an accident. 

  1. OH MY GOD…. you mean to tell me that I do not have total anonymity everywhere I drive my 2000-odd pound vehicle?  Didn’t Jebus write in the Constitution that nobody is allowed to know where I am at any time?  Holy Moly!!!

    1. Didn’t Jebus write in the Constitution that nobody is allowed to know where I am at any time?

      Kinda missing the point.  Your car has identifiable license plates on it, and it isn’t exactly invisible.  Same as my 1970 Mercury.  But unlike my Cougar, a new Caddy with OnStar is tracked everywhere it goes, and not just by cops with radar guns sweating into the upholstery of their Crown Vics beneath that overpass up ahead.  Nope, it’s tracked constantly, 24/7, ostensibly so that if the driver runs into trouble and needs assistance, the assistance can find him or her quickly and efficiently.

      And the little snitch is monitoring your location and speed.  If you’re speeding, it knows.  If you’re headed over the state line, it knows.  If Someone In Authority is wondering where you are and what you’re up to, they don’t have to go out and look for you anymore.  And if they feel like shutting down your vehicle remotely through OnStar… well, maybe at this point the system can’t do that.  Yet.  Or maybe it can, for all you know.  Maybe someone will need a court order to do that.  Maybe not.  Maybe the system would never be so abused, especially by mistake in pursuit of innocent people.

      Of course, in my 41-year-old Mercury, they still have to come out and get me.  In person.  I think I prefer that.

      What’s amusing is the disingenuousness of their reasoning: 

      “What’s changed [is that if] you want to cancel your OnStar service, we are going to maintain a two-way connection to your vehicle unless the customer says otherwise,” Denison said in a telephone interview.
      The connection will continue, he said, to make it “easier to re-enroll” in the program, which charges plans from $19 to $29 monthly for help with navigation and emergencies.

      “Easier to re-enroll.”  As if, once disconnected, they’ll never be able to find your Cadillac again once you decide to re-enroll.  “It’s right here in my driveway.”  “Can’t see it, sir.  You’re permanently off the grid.  Guess you should have stayed within our benevolent sight all along, because now your Caddy is dead to us.”

      1. According to the article, collecting location information from individual vehicles allows them to use it in aggregate form for a variety of future purposes.  Like determining bulk traffic flow for highway usage analysis.  Of course nobody can guarantee that no individual data would be misused. Any time someone has data about you there’s that risk. But would GM be stupid enough to risk the PR debacle that Apple just went through?

      2. “What do you mean you’re raising my health insurance rates?”

        “Well, according to our information, your daughter is dating the son of a one-time OnStar customer who speeds a lot.”

        “You’re shitting me.”

        “Oh my.”


        “It shows here that the car is parked in at a motel just three miles from your wife’s employer.”

        “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

        “You tell me, Mr. Robinson.”

        1. Of course, all of that information could be provided other ways, as anyone who ever watched a police procedural knows. 

          Seems like your local mechanic might have a new line item to add to his services: 
          “• Install OnStar on/off switch………………………………………………………………… $50.00” 

          In some ways, this looks better and better if it gets some of the dangerous yahoos off the road ;-) 

          But it still boils down to the fact that you have no expectation of privacy while driving a car on public streets. License plate cameras, tolling systems, manned speed checks have been around since before OnStar.

          On a more useful/positive note, has anyone here done anything with the data logging *inside* the car, like the ODB ports? Or the new EcoDrive that FIAT provides? This logs driver behaviors (speed, acceleration, braking, etc) to a USB stick for analysis by the owner, ostensibly for guidance on more efficient driving. I know some insurers will offer a discount to drivers who allow their ODB data to be logged and reviewed. 

    1. Back when I worked for OnStar they would not divulge location information without a court order.

      Yeah, well all bets are off in a down economy.

  2. And yes, it is easier to re-enroll a vehicle that’s still in the cell system than it is to add a new cell entity for a vehicle that’s been disconnected.  Just as it’s easier to change the features in your existing cell phone number/account than it is to cancel the account and open a new one.

    1. And yes, it is easier to re-enroll a vehicle that’s still in the cell system than it is to add a new cell entity for a vehicle that’s been disconnected. 

      Of course it is.  “I’d like to re-enroll, please.”  “Certainly, sir.  We’ve been following you all along.  And now you know.  So you may resume sending your annual subscription payments.  And now when you call for help, someone will come. Instead of us just sitting back and idly watching you slam into that tree like we were going to do before you re-upped.”

      Whereas if they actually had to, y’know, hit a switch or two, or assign a new cell or something to your vehicle’s unique OnStar transponder ID (or whatever)… hell, that could take upwards of two or three minutes.  My goodness, think of the waste!

      I suppose if renewing my OnStar subscription became that urgently time-sensitive, my efforts might be better spent calling 911 directly.

      As for your other point, Ross, about the usage of anonymized aggregate data, I have no doubt that all that is valuable and useful information to have.  But contributing to that data is not a selling point to me.  I live in Pasadena, CA and I work in Burbank and have friends and occasional business dealings throughout Southern California, so I understand the need for traffic statistics.  But there are plenty of other ways that that data can be collected without tracking the unique movements of every discrete vehicle on the road, and I personally don’t need any traffic information more granular or frequently updated than the every-ten-minutes traffic reports on KNX 1070-AM.  ‘Cause I’m old, and used to getting around in the wide world with nothing more high-tech than a map and an AM radio.  If that. 

      Of course nobody can guarantee that no individual data would be misused. Any time someone has data about you there’s that risk. But would GM be stupid enough to risk the PR debacle that Apple just went through?

      Seriously?  Of course they would.  GM, it goes without saying, has a long and ignominious history of poor decisions.  And these days, it seems that individual data is always going to be misused, every single time it is collected.  I have no interest in volunteering any more data than I absolutely have to (says the guy who includes his real name and hometown in this very post).  I can’t keep faceless corporate entities from tracking my movements through surveillance cameras, credit card receipts, and (for all I know) aerial drones and satellite imagery.  I’m not going to change cars in underground garages, wear masks, sand off my fingerprints, or flip off the Street View cars.  I’m not remotely interesting enough for anyone to bother following.  But I don’t want to make their surveillance fetish any easier just because I like to see how many burger joints there are in my immediate vicinity, and as for the lifesaving potential of OnStar, God help me, but I just don’t think it’s worth it.

      I’ll go to hell in my own way, thanks.

  3. LOL I wonder if Aldous Huxley or George Orwell ever would have imagined that we’d be signing up for this level of surveillance _voluntarily_.  Think about it — your cell phone has a camera, microphone, and knows where it is at essentially all times, which by extension, 99% of the time, is a measure of where YOU are at all times.  You couldn’t have made this stuff up 75 years ago.  Between that, EZPass, OnStar, and let’s not even get into the ramifications of “celldar” (a story that interestingly made it into mainstream news for about a day almost ten years ago, and then never was reported on again, but did manage to appear in the latest Batman movie, funny that) Big Bro basically can track every moment of our lives, to the foot.

    Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that I still know this, and don’t really mind living in a totally pervasive surveillance society.

    Anywho… info on celldar:


  4. Isn’t the key here, according to the linked article, that the data is anonymized? I presume they’re selling this data to companies like Google so we all get to reap the benefits of free traffic analysis in online maps. This doesn’t seem much different to me than using traffic cameras and image analysis software to anonymously collect traffic information, except that they can get more accurate results with this technology.

    But it does make for a great scary headline.

  5. Is it really possible to anonymize GPS data? I park my car in my garage every night. I drive to work every day. My GPS data tells you exactly who I am and what I like to do with my time.

    Also, the data isn’t anonymized when requested by law enforcement – so the future where you get a speeding ticket in the mail for data collected by OnStar is now significantly more plausible.

    1. And people called me paranoid when I said I’d never EVER buy a car with this shit in it.

      You probably are a bit paranoid, but in today’s day and age, that’s not wholy unjustifiable or necessarily a bad thing.

  6. A driver’s license is not a right in Wisconsin. You can own a vehicle and it’s contents may be secure, but that’s it.

    I agree with the commenter who suggested pulling a fuse. Failing in that, perhaps Douglas Adams’ “reprogramming it’s major circuits with an ax” might be a solution.

    1. A driver’s license is not a right in Wisconsin. You can own a vehicle and it’s contents may be secure, but that’s it.

       Nor in any other state. This may be a lead-in to a defense of unrestricted driving based on legal guarantees of freedom of movement but a drivers license is a privilege: if it doesn’t say that on the first page of the state drivers manual, I’d be surprised. 

  7. I don’t work there any more but when I did, location data was used for 3 things: to give a driver routing directions, to send the fuzz when a theft was reported and to scramble emergency services when the car sensed it was in an accident.
    As for OnStar selling aggregated vehicle movement data, I believe the article says that they do not do this at this time but could in the future.  
    Personally, living in a dense urban area I’d love a smartphone app that would red-flag traffic stoppages in real time based on actual vehicle data.  Think of the time and fuel that could save if you could bail out before you hit that rush hour emergency freeway closure.

  8. AAMOF, if I was GM I’d be baking Active Route Management into the next release of Cadillac vehicle navigation.  Use bulk OnStar vehicle position/speed data to look for stoppages ahead and warn subscribers on that route to take an alternate.

  9. If that is true.   If you cancel the service and then OnStar records you being in an auto accident.   Wouldn’t they be responsible to send medical help?   It seems like negligence if they do not.

    If they are required to report your accident,  then we can cancel the service and get the best part of the service at no cost to us.

      1. The “good Samaritan law” would only apply as much as it would to some random passerby who saw you get into the accident.  Sure thy could be nice and call an ambulance, or they can just go about their business, not giving two shits about you.

        As for Onstar, you are no longer paying them money to provide you the service of alerting authorities in case of an accident. They have no reason to call an ambulance just because you jumped a curb and hit a bus load of explosive nuns. You can how ever bet your ass that they will track your vehicle/you for your driving habits and use the aggregate however they choose. They could just be keeping track of traffic patterns, so when a customer calls for directions, they can tell said customer where to go to avoid the explosive bus load of nuns.

  10. Did any of us actually expect otherwise? Let’s see, I’ve chosen a vehicle that comes with an unturnoffable system (if they can “re-enroll” you with anything easier than a trip to the dealership to physical change a part, it’s effectively unturnoffable) that allows a private company to modify the workings of my vehicle at a distance, as well as sell as much driving information as they want to advertisers, marketers, and law enforcement.

    Certainly a private company would never exploit that information for profit. Certainly law enforcement would never exploit that information to come after you for offenses real and (as-yet) imagined.

  11. The appropriate pricing model of OnStar service would consist of OnStar paying you per month of free data you have provided them, with free installation of their hardware.  If you so chose to contract with them.

  12. I have to wonder how this policy impacts folks (like me) who bought an On$tar-equipped automobile from another private party that let the service contract expire and declined to renew.

    On$tar doesn’t know he sold the vehicle.  Does this mean the creeps are still monitoring my car’s every move?  I’m not comfortable with this at all.

  13. Hi, I’m with the OnStar team. We’re seeing similar concerns from other channels and I wanted to let everyone know that we value our customers’ privacy and security and have never sold any personally identifiable information to any third party.

    To be clear and transparent regarding our business practices we have put together the video below.


  14. As far as police use goes, didn’t a court just rule that sticking a covert GPS on someone’s car requires a warrant? (And whoever said that “anonymized” wasn’t is right. Give me a couple days’ locations, and I’ll know exactly who you are.)

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