OnStar reverses course on controversial GPS tracking plans

Customer concerns prompted decision to drop privacy policy change, company says

GM subsidiary OnStar has reversed course on a planned change to its privacy policies that would have let it collect and share GPS tracking and other data from vehicles -- even after their users stopped subscribing to OnStar service.

In a statement Tuesday, OnStar said that it had decided to abandon the move in response to consumer privacy concerns.

"We realize that our proposed amendments did not satisfy our subscribers," OnStar President Linda Marshall said in a statement. "This is why we are leaving the decision in our customers' hands. We listened, we responded and we hope to maintain the trust of our more than 6 million customers."

In emailed comments, Vijay Iyer, vice president of public affairs at OnStar, added that the company was told by customers that they wanted the option of opting in to the service rather than having to actively opt out.

OnStar's proposed change to its privacy policy, announced just last Monday, had come under withering criticism from some lawmakers. Sen. Charles Schumer, (D-N.Y.), on Sunday had called the move a "brazen, almost unheard-of" privacy invasion, and called on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to look into it.

Last Wednesday, Sens. Al Franken, (D-Minn.), and Chris Coons, (D-Del.), wrote to Marshall, calling OnStar's proposed change a violation of the "basic principles of privacy and fairness for OnStar's approximately six million customers."

OnStar, which provides in-car communication services to millions of consumers, last week began emailing customers about its plans. The company told customers that as of Dec. 1, data from their vehicles would continue to be transmitted to OnStar even after service was canceled.

Unless a subscriber asked the company to remove the data connection, OnStar would continue to collect and share vehicle-related information such as diagnostic error codes, odometer readings, crash information and seat belt usage data.

In today's statement, Marshall noted that "maintaining the data connection would have allowed OnStar to provide former customers with urgent information about natural disasters and recalls," even after subscribers had cancelled. "It also would have helped in planning future services," Marshall said.

Franken welcomed OnStar's change of heart. "OnStar did the right thing today, and I'm glad that so many consumers now won't have to worry about their location information being shared without their consent," he said. "While I'm pleased that OnStar reversed its policy, I still have questions about how that company and others are treating consumers' location information."

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, which he co-sponsored with Coons, would require companies to get permission from customers before collecting location data.

Franken expressed hope that moves such as those proposed by OnStar would spur Congress to act. "Consumers have a right to know what data is being collected about them and have a right to decide whether they want to share that information and when," he said.

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 jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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