The OnStar Debacle: What Were They Thinking?

OnStar command center

OnStar, as you may have heard, was tracking its customers for seatbelt use, vehicle speed and location, and “other data”—even after they had cancelled their subscriptions. You had to formally opt out to get it shut off. And it seems they were sharing the data with third parties, i.e., selling it.

This upset a lot of people, including three U.S. Senators, the Federal Trade Commission, which considered an investigation, and of course many OnStar users. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called OnStar’s action “one of the most brazen invasions of privacy in recent memory.”

The car media naturally went crazy. Alltop’s Autos page (which shows extensive car blog postings) listed 26 OnStar stories this morning. But none of them asked the big question: How could the company be so dumb as to institute the policy in the first place? How could it not foresee the consequences?

It maintained the lame excuse that keeping the data connection open would have permitted the company to notify former, “offline” customers about natural disasters, vehicle recalls and other “urgent information.”

Pandora's boxIn the powerful Greek myth, Pandora opened the box given to her by Zeus that contained all the evils of the world, which were released forever. Never mind that the Big Z told her not to do it. Never mind that the gods endowed her with the “gift” of curiosity.

OnStar’s president, Linda Marshall, said in the press release reversing the company’s decision: “We regret any confusion or concern we may have caused.” Well, so did Pandora, baby.

Now you have 6 million OnStar customers, many of whom may well become pissed-off former customers, angry government officials, an invasion-of-privacy story all over the media—a PR disaster, in other words.

Maybe I’m crazy. People willingly give up their privacy today in all kinds of situations, namely Twitter, Facebook—and GPS, which OnStar uses, of course. Although perhaps it’s different when a company assumes it has the right to steal your privacy from you.

If you presently own one of the 30 GM models that feature OnStar, will you continue to use the system?

—jgoods

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2 Comments

  1. It’s on my 2006 Trailblazer but I never activated it, never needed to. If I find out they were tracking any use of my vehicle, I WILL sue them.

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