Law Enforcement Has Been Using OnStar, SiriusXM, To Eavesdrop, Track Car Locations For More Than 15 Years

from the no-amount-of-premium-gasoline-will-buy-loyalty dept

Thomas Fox-Brewster of Forbes is taking a closer look at a decade-plus of in-car surveillance, courtesy of electronics and services manufacturers are installing in as many cars as possible.

Following the news that cops are trying to sweat down an Amazon Echo in hopes of hearing murder-related conversations, it’s time to revisit the eavesdropping that’s gone on for years prior to today’s wealth of in-home recording devices.

One of the more recent examples can be found in a 2014 warrant that allowed New York police to trace a vehicle by demanding the satellite radio and telematics provider SiriusXM provide location information.

In this case, SiriusXM complied by turning on its “stolen vehicle recovery” mode, which allowed law enforcement to track the vehicle for ten days. SiriusXM told Forbes it only does this in response to search warrants and court orders. That may be the case for real-time tracking, but any location information captured and stored by SiriusXM can be had with nothing more than a subpoena, as this info is normally considered a third-party record.

It’s not just satellite radio companies allowing cops to engage in surreptitious tracking. OnStar and other in-vehicle services have been used by law enforcement to eavesdrop on personal conversations between drivers and passengers.

In at least two cases, individuals unwittingly had their conversations listened in on by law enforcement. In 2001, OnStar competitor ATX Technologies (which later became part of Agero) was ordered to provide “roving interceptions” of a Mercedes Benz S430V. It initially complied with the order in November of that year to spy on audible communications for 30 days, but when the FBI asked for an extension in December, ATX declined, claiming it was overly burdensome.


In 2007, the OnStar system in a Chevrolet Tahoe belonging to a Gareth Wilson in Ohio contacted OnStar staff when an emergency button was pushed. As noted in a 2008 opinion from the case, Wilson was unaware the button had been hit. Subsequently, an OnStar employee heard the occupants discussing a possible drug deal, and allowed an officer from the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office to listen to the conversation. When the vehicle was located and searched, marijuana was found and an indictment filed days later. Ironically, the suspect hadn’t even signed up to the OnStar service, but it hadn’t been switched off.

The 2001 case didn’t end well for law enforcement. It wasn’t that the court had an issue with the eavesdropping, but rather that the act of listening in limited the functionality of the in-car tech, which the court found to be overly-burdensome.

OnStar is also asked to engage in real-time tracking by law enforcement. While OnStar denies it collects location info, it too has a stolen car recovery mode that allows OnStar to track vehicles. OnStar also says it will only do this in response to warrants and court orders — or unless “exigent circumstances” necessitate the bypassing of these constitutional protections. What OnStar definitely won’t do is let the public know how many times law enforcement has asked to track vehicles. The company told Forbes it “doesn’t release the number of these requests.”

Plenty of vehicles come with built-in GPS-reliant devices, most of which perform some sort of data retention. Anything not considered to be “real-time” can be obtained without a warrant, thanks to the incredibly-outdated Third Party Doctrine. Private conversations can be captured and recorded with warrants, which makes a large number of vehicles on the road confidential informants on standby.

Courts have generally been sympathetic to law enforcement use of in-car technology, finding the use of built-in “tools” to be less intrusive than officers installing their own devices on suspects’ vehicles. Certainly law enforcement finds these pre-equipped listening/tracking devices more convenient as well.

The expansion of in-car tech has led to a great many opportunities for law enforcement, at the expense of privacy expectations. While drivers certainly can’t “reasonably” expect their travels on public roads to be “private,” the collection of location data by third parties basically puts drivers under constant surveillance, relieving law enforcement from the burden of actually having to dedicate personnel, vehicles, and equipment to this task. And if cops can’t get this location info from in-dash systems, they can probably grab it from the drivers’ cell phone service providers.

Law enforcement may find encryption to be slowing things down in terms of accessing cell phone contents, but everything else — from in-car electronics to the Internet of Things — is playing right into their hands.

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Companies: onstar, siriusxm

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Comments on “Law Enforcement Has Been Using OnStar, SiriusXM, To Eavesdrop, Track Car Locations For More Than 15 Years”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

In this case, SiriusXM complied by turning on its "stolen vehicle recovery" mode,…

Is that an optional feature, or only available in cars with built-in SiriusXM receivers? (I can’t view the paywalled article.) Or is it something that’s in every XM radio?

Does it send to the satellite? Or is it some separate channel (cell network) that could maybe be blocked?

zerosaves (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I don’t think so. I believe its a separate entity, different technologies, built into vehicles. But I’m not 100% sure how their radio works, don’t use it.

"As of November 4, 2013, Sirius XM Connected Vehicle Services Inc. operates as a subsidiary of Sirius XM Holdings Inc."

Zorb (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Right. Sirius XM Telematics uses cellular for its communications. The satellite radio service is a one way system, as is GPS. To be tracked “by GPS”, a vehicle or other thing must have a way to return its GPS locations to the service that is tracking it. In 95% of cases, this return link is cellular, though there are other methods that use other radio systems, as well as local storage of the information on a memory unit to be retrieved later.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

IoT has little if any benefit for me (who needs internet in their fridge?)

30 years ago I said "who needs a phone in their car?", but now almost everyone is carrying around a tracking device for what I deem a small convenience. In a decade you may be wondering how people shopped before fridge-cams.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Another problem with IoT is the T will usually outlast the component doing the I. That is, your smart toaster will toast long after the computer part of it breaks, is obsolete, or unsupported.

Similarly, your fridge will probably last 20 years, but the “smart” part of it will be obsolete, or unsupported in 3 to 5 years.

Ditto smart TVs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I’m sure your fridge will somehow have to login in order to keep your food at the right temp. It may be the fridge version will no longer be supported or maybe the fridge servers are taken down … it will cause you to either purchase another fridge (which is what they want) or hack the thing (which is what they despise). Given that they refuse to pay a living wage, I’m guessing most people will pay someone to hack it if they can not.

nerd bert (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Similarly, your fridge will probably last 20 years, but the "smart" part of it will be obsolete, or unsupported in 3 to 5 years.

You haven’t bought a modern fridge have you? Between the high speed compressors and the reliability of modern capacitors 20 years is a pipe dream. (FWIW, the NAHB reports that the average lifetime of new fridges in the last 30 years has declined to under 13 years.)

William Thomson says:

Re: Re: Re:2 long life fridges

I have a second hand 1986 model Kelvinator that is still going. Fortunately I have been able to fix it myself (defrost relay and freezer fan) and parts have been available, but I suspect the parts supply will dry up, if it hasn’t already.

The one before that was a 1950s model that worked until 1995. The handle broke long ago and you had to press a stone or piece of hardwood against the stem of the lever to open it.

AEIO_ (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There’s an Android app my GF and I use — it’s called Life360, and tracks our phone position in real-time and logs it for a month. Pretty maps and alerts when we enter or exit a geo-fenced area too.

I don’t care if she knows exactly where I go. I’ve told her that it’s tracking her as well and to leave the group or uninstall it if she has problems with it. She’s left it up because she doesn’t care if I know where she is either.

(If I really cared about location I’d hit “airplane mode” or leave the phone at home and use a burner with call-forwarding.)

“Life three sixty” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue easily so we just call it the “stalker” app.

Hell, if everybody else is tracking me, I might as well get some good out of it too! 😉


As a matter of fact, my home got robbed recently. I was able to use this to see when I left since I wasn’t paying attention.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: The Button

It would be humorous to push the button and then start talking shit. Like really random bullshit – hilarity ensues.

And when you don’t push the button, say that you really like some product and that you want to buy it, then the next day say you read some bad shit about it and refuse to look at it any more, rinse / repeat.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: The Button

I see I misread you. Yes, it is possible to create problems with a recording that asks Alexa to purchase something. And that could be a problem.

But I was talking about a privacy issue, like with OnStar. If OnStar has big brother listening for the past 15 years, then OnStar should have a “privacy button” feature that signals big brother of something interesting.

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