Senators Question OnStar Policy on Data Collection

By Fahmida Y. Rashid  |  Posted 2011-09-26 Print this article Print

Senators Al Franken (D-Minn.), Chris Coons (D-DE) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) are questioning the recent announcement by General Motors subsidiary, OnStar, that it would continue collecting data from customers even after they cancelled their service.

OnStar collects data about the movements of its cars equipped with the OnStar service. The information is not just limited to location data, as the service collects diagnostic error codes and odometer readers, crash information, airbag deployment, seat belt usage and information on any mobile device that may have been paired with the vehicle.

In an announcement e-mailed to sbuscribers earlier this month, OnStar said that starting Dec. 1, the company would keep the two-way communication link active and continue collecting data for both current and former subscribers. The company also reserved the right to sell aggregated and anonymized data to third parties for both groups of customers.

"OnStar's actions appear to violate basic principles of privacy and fairness," Franken and Coons wrote in a Sept. 21 letter to OnStar.

An OnStar spokesman told the New York Times on Sept. 22 that former customers can opt-out of data collection. "The customer has a choice," vijay Iyer, the OnStar spokesman, told the Times.

The company claimed that keeping the two-way communication active for former customers could be used to send emergency messages about severe weather or evacuations, or to notify users about warranty information or recalls.

Franken and Coons were also skeptical about OnStar's promise to anonymize the data. Research has repeatedly shown that it is extraordinarily difficult to anonynimize personal data, especially location data.

Franken introduced the Location Privacy Protection Act earlier this year, which was co-sponsored by Coons. The proposed law would require companies like OnStar to obtain explicit permission from customers before tracking location information or sharing with third parties.

"We believe that OnStar's actions underscore the urgent need for prompt congressional action to enact privacy laws that protect private, sensitive information like location," Franken and Coons wrote.

OnStar's policy may be "one of the most brazen invasions of privacy in recent memory," Schumer wrote in a Sept. 25 letter to the Federal Trade Commission.

Customers shouldn't have to opt-out of information collection, Schumer said, noting that OnStar requires users to call the company by phone. There is currently no way to cancel or opt-out online. |

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