Schumer seeks FTC probe of OnStar privacy policy

OnStar plans to collect data from customers that stop services an 'unheard of' privacy violation, U.S. Senator says

GM subsidiary OnStar's plan to collect and share GPS tracking and other data from vehicles even after their owners stop subscribing to its service has prompted an outcry from some lawmakers.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) on Sunday called OnStar's policy change a "brazen, almost unheard-of" privacy invasion, and called on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate it.

In a letter to FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz, the senator expressed alarm at what he termed as the dramatic changes announced by OnStar. "These changes put consumers at risk for having sensitive personal data collected and shared without their knowledge," Schumer wrote .

Schumer is the third Senator to protest OnStar's policy change in the recent days.

Last Wednesday, Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) sent a similar letter to Linda Marshall, president of OnStar.

"OnStar's actions appear to violate basic principles of privacy and fairness for OnStar's approximately six million customers," the senators wrote. "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."

OnStar, which provides in-car communication services to millions of consumers, last Monday announced the update to its privacy policies. Under the new policy, OnStar said it will continue to collect GPS and other vehicle-related data from cars even if the owners no longer are subscribed to the service.

Unless the vehicle owner calls OnStar and specifically asks for the data connection to their vehicles to be deactivated, data about their vehicles will continue to be collected, the company said.

The vehicle-related data that OnStar collects includes diagnostic error codes and odometer readers, crash information, airbag deployment data, seat belt usage data and information on any mobile device that may have been paired with the vehicle.

The updated privacy policy allows OnStar to share the collected data, in what the company claims will be anonymity, with third parties and business partners.

"We may share or sell anonymized data (including location, speed, and safety belt usage) with third parties for any purpose, which may prove useful for such things as research relating to public safety or traffic services," the updated privacy policy notes.

"It is important that you convey this to other drivers, occupants, or subsequent owners of your vehicle," OnStar said.

In their letter, Franken and Coons urged OnStar to reconsider its decision and expressed skepticism over OnStar's promise to anonymize data before sharing it with others.

"OnStar's assurances that it will protect its customers by "anonymizing" precise GPS records of their location are undermined by a broad body of research showing that it is extraordinarily difficult to successfully anonymize highly personal data like location," the senators noted.

Franken, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law has proposed legislation that would make it tougher for companies to collect GPS location data. The Location Privacy Protection Act would require that companies obtain permission from customer before collecting their location data.

OnStar could not be reached for comment.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan , or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is .

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags regulationsecuritygovernmentprivacy

More about Federal Trade CommissionFTCOnStarTechnologyTopic

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Jaikumar Vijayan

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts