OnStar Is Watching (Even After Your Subscription Expires)

September 22, 2011
General Motors' OnStar

General Motors' OnStar

UPDATE: OnStar has issued a video clarifying the TOS. It's embedded below. 

Every day, it seems the world gets a little smaller, and like a slowly shrinking dormitory, it becomes harder to get any privacy. Sadly, the latest Terms of Service agreement from OnStar isn't making things easier for subscribers -- or non-subscribers, for that matter.

OnStar's new TOS will roll out this December, and to OnStar's credit, it's doing the necessary due diligence by notifying consumers in advance. However, in this case there's a fine line between upgrading the terms of service and completely changing the rules of the game.

For most consumers, the biggest stumbling block with the new TOS is the fact that OnStar now has the right to record your location, speed, safety belt usage, whether the car is running or not, and other factors as it sees fit -- and it can share that data with "any third party, provided the information is anonymized". (Read the full PDF here.) By "third party" we assume OnStar means advertisers, app developers, and anyone else who's willing to pay for the data.

The second stumbling block is that OnStar gives owners the opportunity to deactivate the service -- but only if they contact OnStar and opt out.

And the third stumbling block is that OnStar will continue collecting all the aforementioned information, even if owners cancel their subscriptions. That's frustrating for everyone but GM, which can keep making money off of inactive hardware.

The good and the bad

In a way, the resistance that many folks feel to these Terms of Service is the same resistance that consumers experienced when telephones became widespread in the early part of the 20th century, or when mobile phones became commonplace 80 years later. Do these things represent an invasion of privacy? Sure, but they're also just another sign of our changing world -- and change isn't all bad.

For example, as OnStar tracks the location and speed of vehicles, it can share that data with traffic services that can, in turn, make our travels simpler and more enjoyable. This sort of data collection also enables partnerships like the kind we saw the other day between Ford and location-based coupon service, Roximity. Not everyone will want to make use of such services now, but in the future, chances are good that we'll wonder how we ever got along without them. (Much like mobile phones.)

On the downside, this puts OnStar subscribers one step closer to fulfilling George Orwell's "Big Brother" fantasy. Yes, OnStar says that the data it collects is meant to be anonymous, but all it takes is a couple of clever hackers to change that. And even if the data remains anonymous, drivers must still contend with the creepy feeling of being watched.

The backlash against OnStar is muted at the moment, overwhelmed by the backlash against Netflix and Facebook (though Facebook is supposed to announce something big and mind-blowing later today that might change consumer sentiment). Still, OnStar's roll-out of these Terms of Service might've been smoother if the company had made data tracking opt-in. Just a suggestion for next time.

UPDATE: Here's a video of Joanne Finnorn, vice president of OnStar's Subscriber Services, clarifying the new TOS (h/t Kurt):

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