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OnStar backs down on decision to track former customers

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Jeremy Hobson: The General Motors-owned OnStar car communication service that’s designed to help drivers in an emergency had a little emergency of its own last week. It said it would collect information on its customers’ driving habits — things like speed and location — even if drivers cancelled the service. Well now, after consumer outrage, OnStar is hitting the brakes on that plan.

For more, we’ll get the details now from our New York bureau chief, Heidi Moore. She’s with us live. Good morning.

Heidi Moore: Good morning.

Hobson: So first tell us how this controversy started?

Moore: Sure. Well, drivers know OnStar because it’s a service you sign up for that can track your location and your speed. And it can help you out when you’re in an accident, or if there’s another kind of an emergency, like a weather emergency. So what happened is, OnStar said that it would continue to provide those services — even if you cancelled. Well — that’s a problem.

Hobson: It certainly is. I mean, there’s been a lot of outcry over this. Is that why GM and OnStar decided to reverse course here?

Moore: Yes. It’s creepy, not to put too fine a point on it. I talked to Chris Hoofnagle, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley. This is what he said about it.

Chris Hoofnagle: New technologies enable all sorts of exciting features. But if these technologies are used a little differently by people with perhaps a malicious purpose, these technologies can really become implements of surveillance or control of individuals.

So what that tells us is that when something like this happens, it impacts how much consumers trust a company. It becomes very difficult to give them your money — to give them your service — if this is going to be the way that you’re going to be treated in return. And it pulls the veil back on the friendly face of a company — you see how the sausage is made, and it can freak people out.

Hobson: Marketplace’s New York bureau chief Heidi Moore — thanks, Heidi.

Moore: Thank you, Jeremy.

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