Privacy concerns land General Motors' OnStar in hot water

General Motors' telematics company OnStar found itself in hot water last week after users spotted a change to the terms and conditions that appears to let the company - and its associates - spy on its owners.

OnStar, a communications and safety solution sold independently by General Motors and included as an option on vehicles from GM brands such as Chevrolet and Buick, keeps vehicles connected to a central system via GPS and a cellular data connection, passing on information such as location for the company and its operatives to use to aid the driver.

Historically, when a driver's OnStar subscription ended, so did the communication with the server - but as of December 1, that will no longer be the case, with General Motors still able to track vehicles through the link.

Additionally, OnStar's change in terms, sent in an email to users last week, said that it will now be able to share details of the car's usage with other companies, even if the subscription period has ended.

The changes provoked a furore in the United States, which is OnStar's major market (it is also available in Canada and China), with major automotive and technology blogs picking up the story and two senators urging General Motors to change its policy.

In a video message posted online, OnStar sought to allay fears, insisting that it did not continuously or routinely monitor the location or speed of a vehicle, and that customer information was never sold individually.

In order to kill the connection under the new terms, a cancelling subscriber must specifically request for it to be shut off, OnStar's Vijay Iyer told the New York Times , although mounting pressure may prompt the automaker to reconsider its position in the coming days.

Perhaps the most striking element of the move and reaction is the parallel to an episode earlier this year, when it was revealed that Apple iPhones kept location information in a hidden file without the user's permission - proof, if ever it was needed, that the worlds of technology and autos are rapidly converging.

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