Welcome to OnStar. How May We Invade You?

Forget the superhighway. Privacy on the plain-old highway is the new big concern among consumer advocates.


You shiver in fear when you sit down in front of the computer in your den, because you have heard that these things called “cookies” are secretly collecting personal information about you, and maybe some sinister fellow is lying in wait to snatch your credit-card information out of the ether. You flip off the infernal machine and climb into your big late-model land-yacht for a good old-fashioned Sunday drive.

Little do you know, you may just have less privacy in your Cadillac than you do on the Web.

Where Web browser cookies can track what kinds of Web sites you visit and what kind of computer you’re using, new automobile information technologies such as OnStar — which uses a global positioning system (GPS) — can track your physical location. The handy service can unlock your car door via satellite, or help you find your way in an unfamiliar town on the middle of the night. Maybe it smacks of Big Brother if you’re given to that sort of paranoia, but at least he’s a really helpful brother.

Get out of your car and turn on your cell phone for a casual chat, and you’re back in the panopticon: if your cell phone is a relatively new model, it too has a GPS chip. That’s because the 1999 Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act requires such chips in mobile phones so public safety agencies can find people in emergencies (just as dispatchers have instant access to your address when you call 911 from a land-line phone).

GPS systems in your car or telephone can track the adresses you visit — the doctor’s office, the liquor store, your lover’s house. At the moment, the companies that can collect this data are under no legal obligation to protect your privacy. They may sell a permanent record of your movements to marketing firms, your employer, your wife, your bitterest enemies.

OnStar’s privacy policy assures users that “You take privacy seriously, and so do we at OnStar. It’s our way of sustaining your trust in OnStar and our products and services.” But the company’s privacy policy also says “we may routinely collect information, such as … the location of your vehicle provided via satellite, or any other information, including your preferences or usage patterns.” The policy does not say that the company sells or plans to sell or share such records of your wherabouts. Then again, it doesn’t say it doesn’t, either. Ominously, the online privacy policy ends with this: “OnStar reserves the right to alter its privacy principles as business needs require.”

Consumer advocates attacked Sprint for being among the first to put the federally mandated GPS chips in its cellular phones. Sprint has said it will only use the information to help police and firefighters to locate Sprint customers in emergencies. But again, there is no law requiring Sprint or any other cellular firm from collecting, storing, or selling information it may gather on the comngs and goings of its customers.

This week the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) formally asked the Federal Communications Commission to develop regulations on how “location tracking” information may be used by businesses and agencies that collect it.

Alan Davidson, an attorney with the CDT, told Business Week: “Location is information that was never easily available before — and certainly never remotely to third parties without even the target’s knowledge. I don’t think people realize how available the information is, and how it is already being used. We’ve never had a situation where information about the location of millions of people is suddenly readily available, easily and cheaply.”

While OnStar may decide to sell your location records to a marketing firm, that’s just the beginning of the troubling potential of such technology. The CDT’s Davidson points out that there’s nothing to stop someone from misuing location information to stalk a former lover or kidnap a child.

Is regulation on the horizon? Barely. While we wait for the FCC to address the CDT’s request, the Federal Trade Commission is also expecting to take up the issue, although neither has made any commitment to date. An official with the FTC last year said that addressing privacy on wireless devices will “likely to be the next thing we have to do.” Reassuring, isn’t it?

Bits and Pieces

NAMIBIA’S WAR ON GAYS
President Sam Nujoma of Namibia has a gay agenda: no gays or lesbians are allowed in his country. He has pledged that any known gays or lesbians who attempt to enter his country will be deported immediately: “If they arrive at the Hosea Kutako Airport, we’ll send them back with the same aircraft — if they are couples or found to be homosexuals. Definitely it’s against God’s will. It is the devil at work.” Earlier, Nujoma had said that gay Namibians “should be arrested, imprisoned and deported.”

RUNNIN’ ON TOFU
A North Dakota man took his 1984 Volvo to the capitol in Bismarck, and told lawmakers to smell his tailpipe. That’s because the car had been altered to run on soybean oil instead of diesel. The experiment captured the interest of farmers and elected officials alike, because such a fuel-alternative — if it could be reproduced on even a modest scale — could be a boon for the soybean-growing region, as well as a cheap, clean, and renewable alternative to ever-scarcer fossil fuels.

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