Shhh….This is OnStar….

According to the New York Times the ATX “telematics” system available in many autos, such as Ford, BMW, Mercedes, Cadillac and others, can be turned into an eaves-dropping device by the Feds or perhaps even by nefarious hackers. The ATX system is similar to GM’s OnStar system in that it allows drivers to call to have their doors remotely unlocked, call for directions, or even get automatic roadside assistance in case of an accident using an internal cellular/gps/telematics system. The problem is that the ATX system is vulnerable to government hack: the Feds in at least one case have asked that the cellular connection in a target vehicle to be left “open” so they can eavesdrop on the conversation in the car. While a panel of judges turned them down because doing so would have disabled many of the safety features of the system, the Times speculates that ATX could easily alter the system to allow eavesdropping without affecting the safety features. It is also possible that other warrants have been granted in other districts, since the decision denying the warrent in this case would only affect the Ninth Circuit (western US). And of course we wouldn’t even know about a similar warrant requested under the So-Called Patriot Act.

For now, OnStar claims that its system is not vulnerable to such intrusions, since the system requires the driver be notified whenever a connection is established. But all that could change with a keystroke.

Aside from the intrusion into one’s privacy that is made possible by the ATX system, the vulnerability to legal or illegal eavesdroping is bound to have an impact on the way that consumers view these systems. That’s too bad, since these sorts of telematics can really save lives as well as provide comfort for drivers. Without legislation barring the government from hacking OnStar or ATX, consumers are likely to opt-out of telematics systems, fearing (rightly) that the system they pay for is being turned against them.