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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 26, 2011

SCHUMER CALLS ON ONSTAR TO IMMEDIATELY STOP TRACKING FORMER CUSTOMERS AND REFRAIN FROM SELLING DRIVERS’ DATA; CALLS ON FTC TO INVESTIGATE


Six Million Drivers Use OnStar Nationwide, and Service is Standard On Most New GM Vehicles; Former Customers Are Now Automatically Tracked Via GPS and Their Information Can Be Sold to Third-Parties

Schumer: This is a Brazen Invasion of Privacy and Must Be Stopped – Most Customers Have No Idea They Are Being Tracked After Cancelling Service and Their Data Could Be Sold

 

U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today called on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to launch an investigation into OnStar’s new policy of tracking drivers with installed GPS tracking technology—even after customers have cancelled services and called on the company to voluntarily cease the practice. Schumer’s call comes on the heels of OnStar’s announcement this past Monday that it was changing its policy so that drivers who had cancelled their subscription-based service would still have their location and speed automatically tracked and would have to opt-out of the program to stop it. In their the same announcement, OnStar’s also said it was reserving the company’s right to sell driver data collected on current and former customers’ information to third parties. Today, in a letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, Schumer called on the FTC to launch an investigation into whether OnStar is engaging in an unfair trade practice. He also sent a letter to OnStar Executive Director Linda Marshall calling on the company to revisit the policy change and commit to not tracking former customers and refrain from selling data collected on driver behavior.

 

“By tracking drivers even after they’ve cancelled their service, OnStar is attempting one of the most brazen invasions of privacy in recent memory,” said Schumer. “I urge OnStar to abandon this policy and for FTC to immediately launch a full investigation to determine whether the company’s actions constitute an unfair trade practice.”

 

Six million American drivers across the country currently use OnStar.  Through the use of GPS technology and a two-way connection between the car and the company, OnStar is able to track drivers’ locations and give them alternative driving directions, emergency response in the case of an accident, and a host of other services. Most new GM vehicles come standard with OnStar and drivers are often given 3 months of service free when they purchase a car installed with the service. Until last week, OnStar’s policy was to cancel the two-way connection between the company and the car when a customer ended their service.

 

Under OnStar’s newly announced policy change, the company will continue to track customers even if they have discontinued their service, keeping the two-way connection between the company and the vehicles active, allowing OnStar to keep a complete record of driver activity of all OnStar-equipped vehicles. OnStar has said that it will retain connectivity to the vehicle unless the consumer specifically and explicitly requests that the connectivity be terminated. Simple termination of the service contract will no longer suffice to end the tracking. OnStar also announced that it now reserves the right to sell data collected on the driving habits of former and current customers to other companies and organizations, including a driver’s location, speed, odometer reading, seat-belt use and air-bag deployment.

 

Schumer noted these policy changes put consumers at risk for having sensitive personal data collected and shared without their knowledge.  Although OnStar claims that it will anonymize any consumer data before selling it, hackers have made it abundantly clear how even anonymized, aggregated data can be matched up to identify individual users. Numerous examples exist where hackers have been able to infiltrate so-called anonymous aggregated data and link it to individuals and according to a New York Times report, cybersecurity company iSec Partners, has also shown how wireless connections to automobiles can be compromised to identify speed, location, and in some case break into a vehicle.

 

Schumer said that OnStar’s new policy represented a brazen, almost unheard-of invasion of the privacy of potentially millions of drivers, and in a letter to the company, called for the policy to be immediately halted in order to protect drivers’ privacy. Also, in a letter to the FTC, Schumer called for an investigation into whether OnStar’s new policy constituted an unfair trade practice under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

 

Copies of Schumer’s letters are below.

 

Dear Chairman Leibowitz,

 

I write today to call your attention to an issue of concern for my constituents.  OnStar, the vehicular communication and connectivity system that is a feature of many American cars, has recently made dramatic changes to its privacy policy that I find alarming.  I am concerned that OnStar may be abusing the consumer data – including sensitive information like vehicle location and speed – to which it has access.  I hope that the FTC will investigate to determine whether these policy changes, and the use of consumer data they enable, constitute an unfair or deceptive trade practice under Section 5 of the FTC Act.

 

OnStar announced changes to its data use and collection policy that are disturbing on two fronts.  First, OnStar has said that, even when a consumer terminates his OnStar service, OnStar will retain connectivity to the vehicle (and therefore could be collecting data about the vehicle) unless the consumer specifically and explicitly requests that the connectivity be terminated.  This request must be above and beyond the request the consumer has already made to terminate OnStar service.  Second, OnStar has announced that it will retain the right to sell or otherwise distribute to third parties the date it collects.  This right, according to OnStar, even applies to the data of consumers who have terminated their service.  These changes put consumers at risk for having sensitive personal data collected and shared without their knowledge. 

 

You and your agency have been stalwart defenders of consumer privacy.  I hope you will continue your strong leadership in this area by investigating the data collection at issue here. 

 

Sincerely,

 

Senator Charles Schumer

 

Linda Marshall

Executive Director

Global Business Strategy

OnStar

 

 

Dear Ms. Marshall,

 

I write today to urge you to dial back the troubling changes your company recently announced to its data collection and retention policies.

 

By connecting motorists with emergency services, OnStar undoubtedly provides a very valuable service.  In order to take advantage of that service, customers provide OnStar with access to extremely sensitive personal data about their vehicle and their driving habits.  Consumers trust OnStar to collect and protect that data responsibly.

 

Your recent announcement that you would continue, by default, to collect data on subscribers who had terminated their service and that you retained the right to distribute that data to third parties is a violation of the trust your customers put in you.  More troubling, it is a violation of which many may not be aware; a reasonable consumer would assume that when they terminate a service, they will no longer be monitored by the service provider. 

 

I hope that you will reconsider these policy changes.  In the meantime, I have written to the FTC and asked them to investigate whether your new policy constitutes a violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair and deceptive trade practices.   I hope, however, that government intervention will not be necessary and that OnStar will step up and do the right thing for its customers.

 

Sincerely,

 

Senator Charles Schumer

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