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Location tracking/logging chips in US cars/trucks—can this be disabled?
November 30, 2011 12:43 AM   Subscribe

Anyone with a cell phone can be tracked—their location, where they've been, who they've called, texts, etc and etc. A friend told me that there now location chips in every new vehicle sold in the US—is this true? Also: How long before the cars locations starts getting stored somewhere? And: How difficult is it to disable these chips in cars/trucks, can I do it myself, and/or how much does it cost to have this done?

We've given up anonymity for the convenience(s) of cell phones smart phones blah blah blah. (see this post on the blue) Obviously, you (I) can buy a short-term cheapo garbage-can cell from Walgreens using cash if you (I) don't want to be tracked for whatever reason(s) and get around that. So far, anyways.

Speaking about this with a friend Sunday, he brought to my attn that cars can now be tracked, that there are chips set into all new cars/trucks that can/will show (show who?) the location of that car—I'm like "WTF?"

And it got me to thinking about that anti-theft thing I'd heard about on rental cars, where "they" can turn the damn car off remotely—OnStar?

Questions, Oh Great Green Citizens:
1) Is my friend correct, are there location tracking chips in every new vehicle sold in the US?
2) How long before the cars location information starts getting stored somewhere, has anyone heard anything about anyone logging this information? (IE Apple was doing this on iPhones)
3) How difficult is it to disable these chips in cars/trucks, can I do it myself, and/or how much does it cost to have this done?
4) Is there any move toward having Officer Friendlys being able to turn your vehicle off if/when they decide to do so?
5) Assuming my friend is correct, who is currently able to track a vehicle?


note: I wouldn't dream of disabling some garbage that psycho moron scroto jerks have put on our vehicles, because I just don't think that way. This is strictly informational.
posted by dancestoblue to Technology (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
1) Is my friend correct, are there location tracking chips in every new vehicle sold in the US?

No, this is not true.

On the other hand, if you are leasing a car it is within the rights of the lessee to place both a tracking chip and a remote cutoff into your vehicle. This is not uncommon with dealers who deal with low credit buyers.

With a warrant the government can place a secret GPS on your vehicle.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:05 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah 'on-star' style services are becoming pretty common in a lot of vehicles. The car comes with a button you can push to get assistance during your drive, or summon help in case of a crash. They work using the cellphone data system (or satellites, I think) and I assume they have GPS chips in them. I don't know how/if they can be turned on surreptitiously or who gets the data, but the capacity is certainly there, I guess.

It should be possible to remove it, or you could buy a used car that doesn't have it.

I was looking at iFixit they have a 'tear-down' of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. It should be possible to physically remove the chip, and the phone might even still work.

I just looked up the chip in the phone out of curiosity and one of the features is "Eliminates the need to turn off the GPS receiver" due to really low power consumption in standby.
posted by delmoi at 1:05 AM on November 30, 2011


No, this is not true.
Huh? What makes you say that? I thought most new cars were coming with assistance buttons these days.
With a warrant the government can place a secret GPS on your vehicle.
They are definitely not getting warrants
posted by delmoi at 1:07 AM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


Here's another article about Warrantless GPS monitoring. The thing I linked too was an article about a SCOTUS case, but they are certainly already doing it. The supreme court might stop them, we'll have to see.
posted by delmoi at 1:10 AM on November 30, 2011


Huh? What makes you say that? I thought most new cars were coming with assistance buttons these days.

He's saying it's not true for every car, which seems consistent with your contention that "most" new cars have assistance buttons. Anyway, it's definitely not a standard feature on most low/mid-range cars.
posted by skewed at 1:12 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anyway, it's definitely not a standard feature on most low/mid-range cars.

It is standard on all cars, including low/mid-range cars. (Or even if it isn't, General Motors have released press releases saying that they're putting it in all new cars).

Onstar is not a feature the way that keyless entry or electric windows are - those things cost money to add to a car. Onstar is the opposite - it is a revenue generation device - it offers GM a means to collect a subscription fees from owners for years after the sales, therefore it is not strange that a manufacturer would put it in cheaper cars that otherwise lack features.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:42 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


1) Is my friend correct, are there location tracking chips in every new vehicle sold in the US?

Pretty much, it depends on the manufacturer. I'm sure there are brands that are late to the game and still setting up their subscription services, but they're in the minority.

2) How long before the cars location information starts getting stored somewhere, has anyone heard anything about anyone logging this information? (IE Apple was doing this on iPhones)

Data is valuable, storage is cheap, and companies are not in the business of throwing away money, or potential money. In many companies, even data that has no conceivable use is typically stored because there might someday be a use for it. In the tech area at least, it is exceptional and unusual for companies to not store data, and reassuring statements otherwise are often weaselly. So even though I can't authoritatively answer this question, it seems silly to me to operate on any assumption other than that already being stored, regardless of what a company's PR department says.

3) How difficult is it to disable these chips in cars/trucks, can I do it myself, and/or how much does it cost to have this done?

It depends on the vehicle, but it's probably trivial. A lot of Onstar units are contained within the rear-view mirror, and I don't think the car computer knows they're present and so doesn't fault-check them. So just unclip the mirror, buy a replacement mirror for $10 at the local department store, done. My unit has some of the system in the mirror, and some in a plastic box attached to the underside of the windscreen. I haven't looked into how difficult it would be to remove the box, or whether the car computer would throw an error code if I did, but I have no doubt that I could remove it if I desired, and that an error code (if any) would have no consequences to vehicle operation.

4) Is there any move toward having Officer Friendlys being able to turn your vehicle off if/when they decide to do so?

Not an authoritative answer, but I would say "Not yet". Many consumers are nervous about things like this, and the auto companies really want to present the subscription services as something totally awesome and completely safe to get total buy in, something that you really want to pay (and pay and pay) for. A few years from now when these services are as ingrained as cell phones and auto companies are not so worried about scaring customers is when I would expect the keys to quietly get handed to law enforcement (at law-enforcement request).

5) Assuming my friend is correct, who is currently able to track a vehicle?

Similar to the answer from (2), I would suggest going by history rather than the authoritative claims. There is a long history in the USA of companies of all types making official PR claims regarding their deep commitment to privacy, yet not raising a whisper of objection whenever anyone purporting to be law enforcement asks for information. So I think it's best to disregard official claims and simply assume that all of the following have access to you data (or that if they don't already, that they soon could)

- Any law enforcement officer.
- Anyone with a subpoena.
- Anyone with your SSN and date of birth.
- Anyone in shadow government (NSA, CIA, etc)
- Anyone with a friend or contact in the right place (operators taking bribes, etc)

And quite likely, the following can also sometimes get access to you data (or will be able to eventually):
- Anyone claiming to be law enforcement.
- Anyone claiming to have a subpoena.
- Anyone who can write legalese.
- Your insurance company.
- Someone else's insurance company.

And that rule of thumb likely holds true regardless of whether you're talking about your car, your cellphone, your ISP, your retailer, your online store, your landlord, whatever. Most US companies try to protect privacy, but only to the extent of covering their ass. They're not actually committed to the privacy bit. Usually the moment it looks like covering their ass means releasing the information, they release the information. Usually it doesn't take much to get to that point. I don't expect auto companies to be any different.

If you're pure civilian, ie "I need to know where my son is!", then I expect ass-covering will mean not telling you anything. If you're almost anything else, ass-covering will probably mean telling you, after maybe a few hoops if we're lucky.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:17 AM on November 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


OnStar is a division of General Motors and there is no sign that they will be selling the service to other manufacturers. Given that GM has less than 20% of the U.S. market I have trouble with the "most" thing. In any case certainly not all.

Thanks for the latest on the GPS tracking stuff. "With a warrant" is starting to sound a little archaic, isn't it?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:17 AM on November 30, 2011


OnStar is a division of General Motors and there is no sign that they will be selling the service to other manufacturers.

Other manufacturers are not interested in buying from a competitor something they can make and sell themselves - they're pushing (or unrolling) their own revenue-generation services. I've just been talking about Onstar specifically because it's the one I own and am more familiar with its details.

posted by -harlequin- at 3:25 AM on November 30, 2011


The General Motors system is called Onstar, and is standard on all new vehicles (and is available after-market too)

The Ford system is called SmartAlert, and is an option (both factory and after-market) rather than being standard for all vehicles.

The Mercedes system is called mbrace and is "across the entire Mercedes-Benz lineup, and will come as standard equipment except on the GLK, C-Class, SLK and E-Class Coupe."

And so on.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:40 AM on November 30, 2011


Regarding #3: Although it's probably changing soon, disabling your OnStar service doesn't disable the data collection.
posted by AzraelBrown at 4:19 AM on November 30, 2011


I've seen no indicator that tracking as a shadow feature is in every new car, but certainly potentially on any car with a built in nav system. I do know for a fact that any modern car (airbag equipped) does memorize vehicle system details such as speed, duration of the brake pedal being applied, etc. just prior to airbag deployment.
Not quite a Black Box yet, but pretty close. Considering that GPS trackers like this are readily available to consumers I find it entirely imaginable that the auto industry will just add the chip to every car's computer someday.
A sign o' the times.
posted by No Shmoobles at 7:15 AM on November 30, 2011


Removing any theoretical tracking device from your vehicle doesn't prevent automatic plate recognition, which is rapidly becoming viable across metro areas, and for a government intent on tracking internal movements, makes more sense, since it works on old and new cars just as well.
posted by nomisxid at 8:08 AM on November 30, 2011


Hello from Brazil, where we've learned to stop worrying and love the panopticon. Here's what's in store:

As nomisxid said, mass automatic place recognition. Here in São Paulo, because of hellish traffic congestion, there are restrictions on where/when you can drive your car. Cameras across the city scan every single car and issue appropriate fines. Every car on every highway entering/exiting the city is scanned too.

In 2014, mandatory RFID chips in every car. Receivers strewn across the city and in every cop car. No chip? Here's your fine. All justified by "OMG CRIME", the Brazilian version of "OMG TERRORISM"

Welcome to the future!
posted by Tom-B at 9:52 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


place ➔ plate
posted by Tom-B at 11:48 AM on November 30, 2011


>> Is there any move toward having Officer Friendlys being able to turn your vehicle off if/when they decide to do so?

> the auto companies really want to present the subscription services as something totally awesome


They're presenting it not as a way for law enforcement to stop you (the owner/driver), but someone who took your car: Stolen Vehicle Slowdown
posted by morganw at 7:20 PM on November 30, 2011


It depends on the vehicle, but it's probably trivial. A lot of Onstar units are contained within the rear-view mirror, and I don't think the car computer knows they're present

On reflection, if onstar can stop the car, then clearly it can talk to the car computer. Depending on the competency of its anti-theft defences, it might be difficult to remove without disabling the car, so that aspect of my answer should be ignored. Sorry.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:59 PM on November 30, 2011


Just FYI: I have OnStar (I don't pay for the service, I mean it's installed on my car.) When they announced that they were going to start collecting data from even non-subscribers, I read online that you can pull the fuse that powers OnStar. I asked my dealership to do this when I was in for an oil change. They said there was nothing they could do to disable it. So be prepared to have to do it yourself.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:43 AM on December 1, 2011


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