When I purchased a new vehicle in September 2004, I wanted side impact airbags, but they only were available as part of a “Safe and Secure” package that also included OnStar which I did not want. A salesman tried to convince me that I was getting a year of OnStar service “free”, but obviously part of the price of the S&S package paid for the OnStar subscription.
The emergency services of OnStar are appealing to me. But the privacy implications are not. Now that my year of “free” service is over, I have disabled the system by pulling the fuse that powered it.
OnStar will automatically connect with an OnStar advisor if the airbags deploy. There is also an emergency button for manual activation. In addition, OnStar provides services like remote unlocking and stolen vehicle tracking, and can be used as a hands-free cellular phone if you purchase an additional celluar plan. All these services work by means of an integrated GPS system and cellular telephone.
Should the government wish to find or track a vehicle equipped with OnStar, it is very easy for them to do so. They can also activate the OnStar and listen to any conversations occurring in the vehicle, without the driver and passengers’ knowledge. Some people tried to tell me that my concern over privacy was overly paranoid, but it turned out that the FBI actually lost a lawsuit in which it was revealed that they have been subverting the OnStar system for exactly these purposes. However, the basis of the ruling was that the FBI deprived the car owner of the normal emergency use of the OnStar system. This wouldn’t apply if they used the system to track an unsubscribed vehicle, or if they developed a means to use OnStar for tracking without disabling its normal functioning. It seems very likely that they have done this.
If you carry a cell phone around, it can be used to track you, but a normal cell phone does not include a GPS, so the location must be determined by triangulation based on signal strength, which is not very precise. You can turn off a normal cell phone any time you like. The OnStar system is on at any time the vehicle is powered, and there’s no way to shut it off with the vehicle powered short of removing the fuse as I have done.
In my vehicle, the fuse for OnStar is also used to power the rear seat entertainment system, but I don’t have that option so as far as I know only OnStar is affected. The OnStar buttons and indicators definitely are not functional now, but I have not yet confirmed that the system is completely disabled; it is possible though rather unlikely that the GPS and cellular portions of the system may get power from another fuse. To be completely certain, I should find the OnStar unit and verify that no power is reaching it, or use a spectrum analyzer to verify that the cellular portion is inactive.
I’d actually like to take advantage of the cellular and GPS hardware, but on my own terms. Certainly using the installed GPS antenna for an aftermarket GPS navigation system should be easy. But it would be even better if it turns out that the OnStar unit uses standard OEM modules for the GPS and the GSM cell phone, as the latter uses higher power than a conventional handset and also has the handsfree support. Possibly I could put a different SIM card in the unit to use it with my own cell phone account rather than the one OnStar provided.
Another possibility would be to install switches on the dash that allow me to turn the OnStar unit on and off, disable the GPS, and install an indicator that would show whether the cell phone was active; that way the system could not be remotely activated for eavesdropping without the driver’s knowledge.