OnStar to track all drivers by default [Updated]

OnStar has updated its privacy policy so as to permit position and speed tracking of cars with the navigation system installed, even if drivers do not have an active subscription. The change is already being criticized by privacy activists, who also highlight the clauses allowing OnStar to sell GPS tracking data to its choice of partners, albeit in anonymized form. That, OnStar spokesperson Adam Denison, is yet to happen, though the General Motors subsidiary does reserve the right to begin distributing location data in the future.Updated with OnStar comment after the cut.

"What's changed [is that if] you want to cancel your OnStar service, we are going to maintain a two-way connection to your vehicle unless the customer says otherwise" Denison told Wired, billing the decision as a way to make reconnections "easier" down the line. Customers leaving the service will be able to opt-out of the tracking, though they will need to actively communicate that request to OnStar (and, presumably, read the privacy policy in the first place to know that's a requirement).

"We may use the information we collect about you and your Vehicle to improve the quality of our Service and offerings and may share the information we collect with law enforcement or other public safety officials, credit card processors and/or third parties we contract with who conduct joint marketing initiatives with OnStar" Updated privacy policy

Some of OnStar's potential applications for the data do, on the surface, seem reasonable. The company has suggested that crowd-aggregated location and speed data could be used by city planners to better organize their road networks, monitoring peak hour traffic and improving layouts and maintenance schedules to minimize delays.

However, the scope of OnStar's new possibilities with user data has been highlighted, with forensic scientist Jonathan Zdziarski pointing out that a new addition to the policy allows the company "to collect any data for any purpose." OnStar makes clear it can sell personalized data with GM, its affiliates, dealers, "joint marketing" third parties and others, while anonymized data ("including location, speed, and safety belt usage") can be shared or sold to third parties "for any purpose."

The new terms will go into effect in December 2011. You can see the new OnStar privacy policy here [pdf link].

Update: OnStar's VP of Subscriber Services, Joanne Finnorn, has given us the following statement. One of the parts we're particularly pleased to see is that the company will apparently notify users canceling their subscriptions about the tracking, rather than expecting them to know about it from reviewing the privacy policy themselves.

"OnStar has and always will give our customers the choice in how we use their data. We've also been very open with our customers about changes in services and privacy terms.

"Under our new Terms and Conditions, when a customer cancels service, we have informed customers that OnStar will maintain a two-way connection to their vehicle unless they ask us not to do so. In the future, this connection may provide us with the capability to alert vehicle occupants about severe weather conditions such as tornado warnings or mandatory evacuations. Another benefit for keeping this connection "open" could be to provide vehicle owners with any updated warranty data or recall issues.

"Of course, if the customer requests us to turn off the two-way connection, we will do as we have always done, and that is honor customers' requests.

"Our guiding practices regarding sharing our subscribers' personal information have not changed. We are always very specific about with whom we share customers' personal information, and how they will use it. We have never sold any personally identifiable information to any third party.

"Keeping the two-way connection open will also allow OnStar to capture general vehicle information that could be used in future product development.

"We apologize for creating any confusion about our Terms and Conditions. We want to make sure we are as clear with our customers as possible, but it's apparent that we have failed to do this. As always, we are listening to our subscribers' feedback and we will continue to be open to their suggestions and concerns."