With OnStar, GM Knows Where You Are--But Promises Not to Tell

If your car is equipped with OnStar, General Motors knows where you are. And that has raised concerns among privacy advocates that the data from OnStar could be used by those such as law enforcement, marketers or divorce lawyers to monitor individuals’ activities.

Chet Huber, president of GM’s OnStar division, says that the company’s policies for collecting and using data are designed to maximize privacy protection. He says that OnStar has no plans to sell the information it collects for marketing or any other purpose. “We’re not going to sell information about your oil level to the local oil change guy,” he says. The company does not store vehicle location information. It locates vehicles only to the extent necessary to provide its services, or to comply with a court order.

This policy has come under fire not only from privacy advocates, who worry about any system that can collect location information, but also from law enforcement advocates. A Memphis newspaper recently accused GM of contributing to the death of a carjacking victim because an OnStar operator refused to track the man’s stolen vehicle until it was clear police would get a court order.

Jim White, a lawyer with Moore & Van Allen who has written about telematics and privacy, says there are few legal precedents that address the use of location technology. As such, he worries about the law of unintended consequences. “You start [collecting] individual pieces of information that seem benign,” he says. “But when you begin to combine bits of information it becomes less and less so.” White says OnStar, in storing data only in aggregate, is walking a fine line. “It is disingenuous to talk about aggregate data when you have the ability to differentiate it,” he says. There may not be a business case for creating individual profiles today, White adds, but there may be someday, and that’s when potential privacy violations will become a concern.

Huber says he never wants his company to deviate from its commitment to customer privacy. “The moment we start to go down that path is the moment we compromise the relationships that we have spent 10 years trying to build,” he says. “As long as we use the information in aggregate for the good of the entire network, we are in good shape.”

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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