it surprise you to find out that the FBI might be able
to monitor private conversations in your car? A recent
court case revealed that the FBI used the popular OnStar
system to do just that.
GM cars equipped with OnStar are supposed to be the
leading edge of safety and technology. OnStar has run a
recent blitz of commercials citing helpless motorists
calling in with every type of emergency, from a heart
attack to locking the keys inside the car. In the
advertising world, OnStar reacts quickly by sending help
or even unlocking the car.
However, buried deep inside the OnStar system is a
feature few suspected - the ability to eavesdrop on
The FBI found out about this passive listening
feature and promptly served OnStar with a court order
forcing the company to give it access. The court order
the FBI gave OnStar was not something out of the Patriot
Act involving international terrorism or national
security but a simple criminal case.
According to court records, OnStar complied with the
order but filed a protest lawsuit against the FBI.
Yet the FBI was able to enforce the original legal
order and completed its surveillance because OnStar's
lawsuit took nearly two years to pass through the court
|An OnStar vehicle modem
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in OnStar's favor. The ruling was not based on invasion-of-privacy grounds or some other legitimate constitutional basis. The FBI lost because the OnStar passive live answering service listening feature disables the emergency signal, the very life-saving call for help that the advertisements tout as the main reason to purchase the system.
"The precedent has been set," stated former Georgia
Rep. Bob Barr.
"The grounds on which the 9th Circuit reached the
decision were not on the privacy aspects of the case.
Under the CALEA [Communications Assistance to Law
Enforcement Act] laws, the FBI blocking of the emergency
signal constituted a breach of the consumers' contract."
The technical problem of blocking the emergency
signal is clearly one that the FBI tech teams can
overcome. Thus, under the current ruling, the FBI can
resume using OnStar to monitor subject vehicles once it
has solved the emergency issue.
Open for Abuse
An OnStar vehicle modem
Further analysis of the OnStar design reveals that
the FBI may not be the only one listening in. According
to my own electronics experts, foreign intelligence
services or even technically savvy organized crime
groups could invoke the passive OnStar feature.
The system used by the FBI for law enforcement
purposes is open for abuse. That abuse could span the
spectrum of illegal operations from criminal activity to
commercial espionage to military espionage. It is not
hard to envision a foreign intelligence service using
the covert OnStar feature to monitor the conversations
of unknowing government employees, contractors or
It would seem certain that the FBI should be
concerned that its one-way listening feature might be
twisted into a tool for evil if it fell into the hands
of hostile nations or ruthless criminals. One would hope
that law enforcement would design these very expensive
surveillance systems so they cannot be abused.
"The abuse by others does not enter into question
unless it is for counter-espionage purposes," stated
former Rep. Barr.
for the general public themselves, it is clear from the
past history that law enforcement is not concerned if
these systems are abused."
Other Resources of Information:
GM OnStar Auto Parts - www.seattle.gov
Auto Parts Direct - www.directfitautoparts.com
OnStar Auto Button Parts - www.michigan.gov
Digital Pearl Harbor
There is historical precedent to back up Barr's
claim. The Clinton administration wanted to erect a
multibillion-dollar monitoring system called Clipper.
However, the project had a major flaw that could have
led to a digital Pearl Harbor.
Attorney General Janet Reno wanted to monitor all
American domestic computer communications such as
e-mail, using the Clipper "exploitable" feature to
secretly intercept and decode any messages.
Prime targets for monitoring would be foreign
governments, banks, corporations and individuals the
Clinton administration felt were a threat. The Clipper
keys were to be held by Ron Brown's Commerce Department
under a project run by Assistant Attorney General
In fact, it was the "exploitable" feature of Clipper
that worried U.S. government officials. FBI Director
William Sessions wrote two major papers to then-Clinton
National Security Advisor George Tenet early in February
of 1993. The FBI documents reveal that the Clipper
system had flaws that could compromise all the computers
The FBI director wrote: "This design means that the
list of chip keys associated with the chip ID number
provides access to all Clipper secured devices, and thus
the list must be carefully generated and protected. Loss
of the list would preclude legitimate access to the
encrypted information and compromise of the list could
allow unauthorized access." The Clipper flaw also
worried other U.S. government officials.
fact, NASA decided to decline to use any Clipper device.
In 1993, NASA Associate Administrator for Management
Systems and Facilities Benita A. Cooper wrote: "There is
no way to prevent the NSA from routinely monitoring all
encrypted traffic. Moreover, compromise of the NSA keys,
such as in the Walker case, could compromise the entire
For those of you who do not remember, former Navy
officer Jonathan Walker is currently serving a life
sentence for espionage because he gave the Soviet Union
the secret code keys to U.S. military communications.
In short, NASA pointed out that a single security
breach by one agent would have given total access to
every computer in the United States to a foreign power.
The desire to monitor all communications at any cost
is well documented. Despite the warnings in 1993 that
the draconian Clipper system had an Achilles' heel, Ms.
Reno and VP Al Gore continued to pursue mandatory
Clipper designs for America right up to the end of the
For Whom the Booth Tolls
Big Brother-like desire to monitor you does not stop
with computers, phones and OnStar. The state of Virginia
recently revealed that it has used electronic tollbooth
systems for law enforcement surveillance.
The Virginia Smart Tag system is designed to
electronically pay tolls, allowing customers to speed
through specially equipped booths. The Smart Tag is a
small electronic box about the size of a deck of cards
that is attached to a customer's windshield.
Angry lawyers and privacy advocates argued that the
Smart Tag system could be used against customers by law
enforcement. The Virginia Department of Transportation
promised in several public statements that the system
would be used only for toll collection purposes.
That promise turned out to be a lie. Recent court
actions forced the state to reveal that the Smart Tag
system had been used by law enforcement for
The systematic use of a toll collection process for
surveillance brings into question the move to
nationalize the toll process with a single electronic
tag to pay any toll.
No Check - No Balance
Clearly, any surveillance system can be used and
abused at the expense of the general public unless there
are checks that balance law enforcement's need to know
with the public's right to privacy. At the moment, those
checks and balances don't appear to be in place.
"The government's efforts to thus enhance its ability
to listen in to our conversations have moved into high
gear in the aftermath of 9/11," stated former Rep. Bob
"The Patriot Act granted law enforcement certain
powers, including administrative warrants that inhibit
our ability to check to see that these powers are used
correctly," concluded Barr.