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Big Brother on Board
Auto Parts - OnStar Bugging Your Car
Charles R. Smith -
See an Update On OnStar From a Reader
See about the new version of OnStar from Phil Elmore! (Getting scarier)
Would 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 unsuspecting motorists.

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 system.

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 officials.

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.

"As 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 -
Auto Parts Direct -
OnStar Auto Button Parts -

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 Webster Hubbell.

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 so equipped.

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.

In 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 system."

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 Clinton administration.

For Whom the Booth Tolls

The 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 surveillance.

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 Barr.

"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.