OnStar: like there was ever any doubt…

In the digital age, it is much easier for information to dissiminate.

That is a double-edged sword.

After all, information can not only help you – it can track you.  And we are being tracked now, more than ever.

I’m not just talking about videocameras everywhere – there is so much more!

Many manufacturers are inserting IR id tags into their products – individual numbers are assigned to each piece of merchendise which is than tracked when you walk back into their stores:  if you walk through the store in an item with such an IR tag, it’ll tell the store who you are, which store you purchased that garment in, how you paid for it and what other purchases you have made from that company.  All this to better help sales-staff target you customize your shopping experience.

All the data stored on your personal digital devices can be accessed remotely – by just walking through a doorway with a sensor in it:  from phones and cameras to ‘smart’ passports.  Remember those ads for coffee-tables that you just place your camera on and they will automatically download the photos – yeah, we have not been hearing about it much lately, even though the technology has been around for years…

Of course, many of us are complicit in corporate datamining:  every time we use the ‘customer rewards points’ cards (like AirMiles), we are permitting large corporations to cross-analyze our shopping habits –  by storing and analyzing info on everything we buy.  I never understood why people sold their private information so cheaply!  But, so many of us do…without a second thought.

And that is the problem:  we give permission for vast amounst of our private information to be collected, analyzed and used by ‘unseen entities’ (usually corporate, but often government ones) without ever giving it a thought.  We chide teenagers for not being careful about the information they put on ‘Facebook’ or about sending provocative photos of themselves  by phone – but this is negligable compared to the type of information we give away daily….just so long as we think there is some minor benefit to us.

Things have escalated to the next level:  many of us are now not just consenting for our most private information to be accessed by ‘third parties’, we are increasingly willing to hand over the very control of our choices/actions to ‘third parties’ – both corporate and governmental.

Let me give you a little example of the latter:  in Ontario, there is a new program where the government ‘gives’ you a brand new electronic heat/air-conditioning controller and installs it in your  house.

For FREE!!!!!

And it has the added ‘benefit’ that with this controller, you will be helping stabilize the load in our electricity supply, because when there is a ‘crunch’, the government can automatically access this meter and change your temperature setting by a few degrees if the electricity grid load is too high….



It makes me want to scream – or cry.  Just thinking about it, I feel a migrane coming on…

Which brings me to OnStar…

A few years ago, I purchased a new vehicle which came with a ‘free one-year OnStar service’.  So, I read the terms and conditions of the contract – you know, the small print.  And I was shocked at what I read there.  Not shocked that they would want these powers – but that anyone would agree to this.  I do not have the contract in front of me, so I am going from memory (and paraphrasing), but the things that stuck out most in my mind were:

  • At any point, OnStar could disable the vehicle.  Remotely.  Without my permission.  At their ‘discretion’.
  • At any point, they could ‘monitor’ for ‘training purposes’ any vehicle they wanted.
  • They could listen in to conversation in the vehicle and share the information with law-enforcement at their discretion.

Now, I don’t know whom these OnStar people are employing – but I doubt that the employees are making much over minimum wage.  Yet, these are the very people whom I would hand the permission to use their discretion over my private information?  Not likely!

So, I said I would purchase the vehicle – but only on the condition that the OnStar thing NEVER gets connected.  This seemed to shock the sales-people – they obviously thought me a nut, which was perfectly fine with me, but after much hmmmm-ing and haaaaw-ing, they produced the required paperwork.

Now I was purchasing the vehicle – but ‘waiving’ the OnStar contract and the sales bill also included a hand-written clause that said OnStar would never receive ANY of our information and the system would never be activated.  I was ‘safe’, right?

Well, not exactly…

Even though my sales contract specifically stated that the OnStar system must never become activated and none of our information (including our name) would be shared with OnStar, something had obviously gone wrong.

A few weeks into the ownership of the vehicle, while driving down the street, the OnStar people started TALKING TO US through the console!

No, I did not push the ‘OnStar’ button.  And, even if I had, according to the condition in our sales contract, the cell-phone number necessary to activate the system was never to have been obtained for this vehicle…

So, what did the OnStar people have to say to us?

The voices (sometimes male, but usually female) informed us that their records about us are incomplete and that we need to contact their office in order to enjoy fully our free year of service….

I was not happy.

I called the dealership to complain – and was clearly not believed that this was happening.  According to their paperwork, it was physically impossible and the person I spoke to was obviously wondering if the voices I was hearing were really from the OnStar unit and not just inside my head.

It got worse.

At about the same time, we started receiving letters – through the mail – from OnStar.

With our names and full address – and listing the VIN number of the vehicle we bought, telling us that there was now only one tiny step we needed to take – confirm their information was correct – to begin enjoying our ‘full year of free service’!

Predictably, I went medieval on the car dealership that sold me the vehicle.  (Now, whenever I call or come in, only managers or higher are permitted to interact with me and I get the red-carpet treatment…but that is another story.  The dealer was blameless in this – but the people they represent weren’t.)

To make my story short (OK, slightly less laborious), I threatened to not just return the car, but also to sue them for breach of contract.  Which ‘they ‘did breach – some ‘they’ along the line.

The dealer was the one whose signature was on my contract….so I would need to sue the dealer and the dealer would then get to sue whomever else next ‘up the chain’ – as I explained to them slowly and clearly when they swore up and down that not one person at the dealership gave OnStar my name, address and the VIN of the vehicle I had purchased.  Which someone  somewhere along the line clearly did – and I had the correspondence from OnStar to prove it.

Within a day or two, the dealership had brought in a special tech who had disconnected the OnStar unit completely – and insisted I watch.  They had to take the whole front dash off to get to it…

However, the tech told me an interesting piece of information:  in some current models – and eventually ALL future models – this OnStar technology is being hooked up through the starter mechanism of the vehicle itself.  The upshot of this is that if the OnStar antenna/monitor is physically disconnected, these vehicle will not start.

And if it is not physically disconected, your data is theirs – whether you have a plan or not.

So could not but chuckle when I came across this story:  OnStar had now changed its terms of use to make it perfectly legal for themsleves to sell – SELL – all the information gathered about you via their box:  from your movements, to your seatbelt use, speeding habits, when and where you fill up, and so on.  (This last bit will come in handy when governments decide to impose a ‘per-vehicle’ mile/kilometer travel allowance, after which the owners will be charged an extra ‘eco-consumption-tax’ – come on, you can see it coming!)

So, now, OnStar says openly that they will collect your data, whether or not you want (as disconnecting their data-collection unit physically will make your car not start) and then sell it to other corporations and the government.

Isn’t ‘collusion of industry with government, limiting the freedoms of he individual’ the very dictionary definition of ‘fascism’?


UPDATE:  OnStar announces that it will no longer tell people that they are continuing to collect their data – so there is a chance that cops may not openly use this info against citizens…

3 Responses to “OnStar: like there was ever any doubt…”

  1. CodeSlinger Says:


    It’s not just GM. Ford has a competing system called “Sync,” which talks to your smart phone (!) and has live operators to “assist” you.

    And it gets worse.

    We do not finance vehicles unless OnStar is enabled.

    If you disable OnStar, you are in breach of your lease.

    We will not licence old (pre-OnStar) vehicles. Ahem. Because they exceed emissions limits.

    All our rental vehicles are equipped with OnStar. For your protection, of course.

    Etc. Etc. Etc.

    On the bright side, this gives me a great idea for a product: a clean-burning after-market ignition system that replaces the components that stop working when you rip out OnStar.

    But most of all, I just sit here shaking my head, wondering if there is any limit to what people will put up with.

    Are people really this oblivious?

    Are people really this spineless?

    Xan says: Unfortunately – YES!

    It is even worse on the other side of the pond.

    In the EU, Britain (!!!) is lobbying to make it illegal to operate a vehicle within the EU territory which does not have OnStartype box onboard. The reason they are giving is ‘so they can monitor traffic flow and set trafic lights to optimize it’…. Yeah, really.

    And they are openly stating that this will have to be phased in emphasizing the ‘safety aspect’ in order to ensure consumer buy-in.

    Chipping us all (and not just our vehicles) is going to be such a tiny incremental step that nobody will even blink…

  2. CodeSlinger Says:


    Well then, the European version of the product will work perfectly in test mode but report random numbers and refuse to accept remote commands in normal mode.

    You know, the more they push this kind of thing, the more I think about relocating to some small, tropical country where the government is too poor to harass you and the criminals will leave you alone if you shoot at them.

    Xanthippa says:

    When you devlop it, I’ll do my best to help you bring it to market!

    As for the second option: been there, considered that, at quite significant depth. We even went as far as making a spreadsheet with some of the most important (to us) criteria for easy comparison. The problem was that places where we could get reliable high-speed internet access and which I could also survive in all had very serious drawbacks, including growing islamist diaspora and non-trustworthy policing/judiciary. It seemed that whenever the government did not overly intrude into the citizen’s lives – it did not provide core governmental responsibilities, either. Worse, the local authorities would do the intruding, but without accountability. The only safe way we could live in these countries would be if we built a self-sufficient community of like-minded people, which requires such a great social involvement that we could not sustain it for long without going batty. (People are fine, but outside of my immediate family, I don’t want to see the same ones weekly, much less daily. That just creates unbearable pressure…) So, reluctantly, we abandoned this plan.

  3. CodeSlinger Says:


    Indeed. I’ve often thought Canada might be a nice place to live, if not for the “serious drawbacks, including growing islamist diaspora and non-trustworthy policing/judiciary.”

    However, in these small places where “the local authorities would do the intruding, but without accountability,” the lack of accountability also means lack of significant paramilitary backup. Therefore you can count them among the criminals who will leave you alone if you shoot at them!

    Whatever drawbacks there may be to such places, have you taken a good look at the police state the Harper conservatives are building around us as we speak? Instead of dismantling the nanny state, they are simply fortifying it with more brutal enforcement than ever before.

    The crime rate in Canada is at a 50-year low. But we just spent 3 billion dollars on new prisons. One has to ask why.

    Every large corporation and federal department is implementing something at least as odious as OnStar – many of them far worse.

    Frankly, it may be time to update that spreadsheet, factoring the new Canadian reality…

    Xan says:


    However, I have missed my window. I am no longer healthy enough to make re-location a viable option.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: