New OnStar privacy policy expands on data sharing

An upcoming change in policy for OnStar subscribers includes some daring new freedoms that allow GM to share your data with more third parties.

Christopher MacManus
Crave contributor Christopher MacManus regularly spends his time exploring the latest in science, gaming, and geek culture -- aiming to provide a fun and informative look at some of the most marvelous subjects from around the world.
Liane Yvkoff
Liane Yvkoff is a freelance writer who blogs about cars for CNET Car Tech. E-mail Liane.
Christopher MacManus
Liane Yvkoff
3 min read

OnStar is updating its privacy policy--effective this December--with some daring new freedoms that allow it to share your data with more people. In addition, a new clause alludes to a possible sale of business operations, which has been a long-standing rumor surrounding the telematics company.

Regarding a possible sale of OnStar: "There may be instances where we sell some or all of our business operations," says the policy (PDF). "To the extent that the business operation that is sold relates to the equipment, service or data connection, we may transfer your information as part of the transferred assets."

A GM representative emphasized to CNET that "it's standard legal language they have to put in the unlikely event that they sell of services or merge with another company." This could be true, but it could also revive rumors of a suitor seeking to gobble up over 5 million subscribers paying a fair fee each month. Companies such as Hughes Telematics, Qualcomm, and IBM could easily absorb a business like OnStar.


A clause giving the company more sharing rights than ever with your information has also been included in the policy, even if you are not paying for service. As a refresher, this data includes, among many other things, the anonymous aspects of your location, speed, safety belt usage and your credit card information. If you accept the new statement, then third-party marketers, "with whom OnStar contracts with to conduct joint marketing initiatives," also get to access a pool of data from OnStar users.

This is a contrast to the OnStar 2010 privacy policy, which stated, "In general, we do not share your personal information with third-party marketers, unless we have asked for and obtained your explicit consent." So much for that.

Now consent is not necessary, since marketers are on the approved receivers of collected information. There are more than a dozen other organizations and companies getting that information, too. Any third party of OnStar's choosing can also see the data, though they only see anonymous statistics.

In many ways, the finer aspects of the data are beneficial to legitimate organizations aside from emergency responders. The numbers are the mathematics of driving. A GM rep reminded CNET, "We're in a pilot program with University of Michigan to use OnStar vehicle data to predict the injury severity in crashes, which is sent to emergency responders." Some people believe that the data collection by OnStar has crossed the line, such as forensic scientist Jonathan Zdziarski, who first wrote about the changes in policy.

Earlier, I referenced how OnStar collects and sells your data, even if you do not have a plan. Yes, that means you are still making money for OnStar even if you are not paying for it. The way it works is simple. There is a "soft" disconnect, in which a user will turn off the service, but it actually is kept available so it can be reactivated. OnStar admits, "Information about your vehicle may continue to be collected even if you do not have a plan." Uh oh. There goes the data, right back to all of those people listed above, including the marketers (which could include, but not limited to, insurance companies).

Regarding the soft disconnect, a GM rep stated, "It makes it easier to re-enroll customers, enroll new customers of used GM vehicles, and push out new systems to vehicles, even if they're not current subscribers." GM would not elaborate further as to why a soft disconnect was easier to reactivate, though.

There is hope in a "hard" disconnect, which can be done over the phone by calling (877) 616-0577. Some would rather just locate and pull the fuse for the OnStar set-up, which is another option. Zdziarski wrote in his blog, "It takes up to 10 days to have the account fully cancel, and another 14 days for the data connection to be shut down."

The OnStar FMV can be added to many modern vehicles. OnStar/GM

It's not all dark skies, though. There will be a time when cars need to talk to one other, to the grid, and to the traffic infrastructure. The more data available, the better that the planning can become.

Perhaps sharing our location with multiple parties is inevitable as we become more connected. Our phones are full of social and location-based apps with similarly intrusive policies and partners, so it is almost unsurprising an assistance service for vehicles will drive down the same road.