Big Brother OnStar

Excerpt of “Court to FBI: No spying on in-car computers” by Declan McCullagh on News.Com:

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said Tuesday that the FBI is not legally entitled to remotely activate the system and secretly use it to snoop on passengers, because doing so would render it inoperable during an emergency.

In a split 2-1 rulingthe majority wrote that “the company could not assist the FBI without disabling the system in the monitored car” and said a district judge was wrong to have granted the FBI its request for surreptitious monitoring.

The court did not reveal which brand of remote-assistance product was being used but did say it involved “luxury cars” and, in a footnote, mentioned Cadillac, which sells General Motors’ OnStar technology in all current models. After learning that the unnamed system could be remotely activated to eavesdrop on conversations after a car was reported stolen, the FBI realized it would be useful for “bugging” a vehicle, Judges Marsha Berzon and John Noonan said.

David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, called the court’s decision “a pyrrhic victory” for privacy.

“The problem (the court had) with the surveillance was not based on privacy grounds at all,” Sobel said. “It was more interfering with the contractual relationship between the service provider and the customer, to the point that the service was being interrupted. If the surveillance was done in a way that was seamless and undetectable, the court would have no problem with it.”

I’ve often wondered how long it would take before someone began using OnStar and similar products to keep track of, or spy on, a vehicle and it’s occupants. I’ve been expecting for some time now to see someone offering a web-based service for tracking these vehicles, so I’m not particularly surprised that law enforcement would want to use the system’s voice capabilities for “wiretap” surveillance.

As with most recent technological conveniences, we must each weigh it’s value to us against the impact it may have with the level of personal and family privacy we feel comfortable with. Personally, these products are a bit outside my comfort zone.

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