Thursday, September 22, 2011

OnStar Wises Up to Business Opportunity

As you should know, OnStar is a telematics system which is installed by default on every Government Motors car (and several other makes); it's one of several systems now in use, but probably the most widely known and deployed. This system is used for providing real-time updates to your vehicle, getting assistance, uploading your car's diagnostic information to OnStar's servers, allowing remote control of your vehicle by police, OnStar, or anyone else in control of their network, and surreptitiously monitoring in-car conversations without a warrant. There are other uses as well, but these are the major ones, I believe.

Recently, though, OnStar changed their terms of service to allow the company to use your telemetry information for its own private use, regardless of if you have the service currently "active" (the monitoring and surveillance capabilities are always active, you cannot modify these through any means, for obvious reasons). They have always been collecting the information, of course, but previously only law enforcement (or other government agencies) could use the information "legally"; the legality is debatable, but OnStar had a "get out of jail free" card if, say, the CIA wanted to get all the data, so they were happy to cooperate. It was, and continues to be, a mutually beneficial arrangement; there's a good reason Government Motors installs this system in all their vehicles regardless of customer desires, and if you think this is for the customers' benefit, you probably want to stop reading here, because the real world is going to make you cry, or worse.

What OnStar has figured out recently, it appears, is that in the post 9/11 world, where privacy is an antiquated concept, you can make lots of money selling people's personal information. Facebook's entire business model is built on this concept, and even Google, previously known for trying not to do evil, is making no excuses for its business practices in which your privacy is totally irrelevant to them (see recent comments on real names in google+, and how the company has no consideration whatsoever for user privacy desires, apart from what might be specifically mandated by law or overwhelming public opinion). With more data being uploaded into the cloud every day, and OnStar-type functionality becoming socially acceptable (see: recent commercials and talks promoting total surveillance and remote control in the context of parents remotely monitoring their children), the idea that OnStar could do the same with your vehicle information (and/or conversations in/around your vehicle) has moved out of the realm of scary, and into the realm of taken for granted. Therein lies business opportunity.

Of course, you need the appropriate spin, which is why OnStar was quick to go on the pseudo-defensive, and insist that you can still "disable" it if you like. Of course, the concept is laughable: it's still always on, the data is still collected (for "law enforcement", if nothing else), and the usage is still at their discretion. Remember, it's the contract which defines the legal rights, not the press release with empty promises about how the company may or may not utilize the data. With the direction of the country, though, you won't even need the spin in a few years; it'll just be the way it is, and people will accept it as unchangeable, as they accept OnStar in their vehicles right now, despite all the government control implications.

Kudos to OnStar, though, for recognizing the business opportunity, and making the data which was once only available only to every government entity possibly available to everyone for a reasonable price. As google figured out, if you're going to be Big Brother incarnate, you should at least have the business sense to profit off your part in the conversion of the US to a totalitarian regime.

I miss the days when people wanted to leave the country/world better than they found it...

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