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4566Bob Barr Article

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  • JD
    Dec 2, 2003
      Mr. Bear - believe that this article from former Congressman should be read
      by all. Know that if you disagree, this will be cut. If you send through,
      please delete this message. Thanks.

      WASHINGTON, Dec. 1 (UPI) -- Every time my wife urges me to look into getting
      OnStar, the digital,
      computerized communications device installed in many newer-model General
      Motors vehicles, I have resisted.

      Yes, I know; I've heard the tear-jerk ads on the radio with the plaintive
      voices of supposedly real wives,
      mothers, and metro-sexual-sounding men fearing for their lives because
      they've locked themselves out of
      their cars and have called OnStar so someone can get them out of the jam
      into which they've put themselves.
      Still, I've not been convinced the loss of privacy is worth the remote
      possibility that I would find myself in a life-threatening situation from
      which the only possible salvation would be my ability to reach out and touch
      an OnStar employee.

      Now, even my wife agrees that OnStar -- or similar tracking devices
      installed in non-GM vehicles -- would be a really bad idea. What changed her
      mind? In addition to the irrefutable eloquence of my arguments, it was a
      recent story, tucked away in an Internet news service, describing a recent
      federal court decision that confirms what my own conspiratorial-oriented
      mind always suspected was true. The FBI and other police agencies have been
      using these factory-installed tracking systems as a way to eavesdrop on
      passengers in vehicles, without the folks in the car even knowing the
      government was listening to their conversations! Unbelievable, you scoff?
      Nope, it's as real as the genetically engineered smells automobile
      manufacturers are now putting into their cars.

      Even though the federal court decision -- rendered by the Ninth Circuit
      Court of Appeals, which covers several western states, including
      California -- concluded that the FBI could no longer surreptitiously listen
      in via computerized communications systems like OnStar, it did so only for a
      tangential reason and therefore left the door wide open for continued
      invasions of privacy.

      This tends to get a bit technical, but let me see if I can describe it
      accurately in a way that makes sense to us non-techno-geeks.

      The manner in which the FBI has been worming its way into individual
      vehicles equipped with one of these "emergency" communications systems
      requires them to temporarily disable the particular system in the "target
      vehicle." The targeted vehicle therefore cannot send an outgoing "emergency"
      signal while the eavesdroppers are "dropping in."

      Let's assume John or Jane Doe is proudly tooling around New York City in
      their late-model Cadillac equipped with OnStar. Unbeknownst to them, an FBI
      snoop believes they are discussing matters of gravest national security
      interest during their jaunt. The agent has therefore directed the Bureau's
      computer to reverse-engineer OnStar so it becomes a listening device instead
      of a transmitting device.

      Unfortunately, if during the time the FBI is thus listening in, John or Jane
      suffers a real emergency, their expensive computer communications device
      cannot send out a distress signal.

      This scenario is what the federal court seized on as the basis for slapping
      the FBI's hand. The customer has paid for an emergency communications
      device, and because the FBI snooping renders it potentially incapable of
      providing that service, the FBI has improperly disrupted a service the
      customer has paid for. This it cannot do, sayeth the Court.

      Of course, what the Court should have focused on is the gross and
      unconstitutional invasion of privacy represented by this new manner of
      electronic snooping. Instead the Court essentially told the government, go
      back to the engineering room, and if you can come up with a way to use
      OnStar to listen in to what's going on inside private vehicles without
      hampering the other, legitimate functions of the system, then boys, go right
      ahead with our blessing.

      The implications of this opinion are not exactly reassuring.

      What's even more frightening, however, is that this latest peek into the sub
      rosa world of high-tech government snooping is just the tip of the
      proverbial iceberg. For the past 10 years, the government has used a
      little-known provision of the federal law, known as the Communications
      Assistance to Law Enforcement Act, to browbeat the telecommunications
      industry into spending billions of dollars to make its technology
      eavesdrop-friendly, requiring technology advances to include built-in ways
      for the government to use that technology to listen in to whoever is using

      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.

      Cell phones already will be required to have tracking devices installed
      therein, for the convenience of government employees who wish to track us
      and listen in on our cell phone conversations. Now we find out that
      automobile emergency communications systems can serve as one-way, secret
      phone lines directly to the FBI. We've all heard the stories that our home
      phones and computers serve the same purpose. As more information emerges
      such as the one concerning the OnStar court decision, it's getting harder
      and harder to dismiss these stories as "black helicopter" fantasies.

      -- Bob Barr is a former member of the United States Congress and a former
      U.S. Attorney in the state of Georgia.

      -- United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by
      outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues.

      Listen to Bob Barr's Laws of the Universe, Sunday evenings at 6:00 p.m.
      E.S.T on Radio America (www.radioamerica.org)