Bob Barr Article
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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)