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GM was collecting and sharing drivers’ data, often without their knowledge

Kimberly Adams and Sofia Terenzio Apr 25, 2024
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"I was shocked, but at the same time, this is what drivers of GM vehicles had been telling me," said Kashmir Hill at the New York Times when she discovered her driving data had been collected without her recalling consenting to share it. Mario Tama/Getty Images

GM was collecting and sharing drivers’ data, often without their knowledge

Kimberly Adams and Sofia Terenzio Apr 25, 2024
Heard on:
"I was shocked, but at the same time, this is what drivers of GM vehicles had been telling me," said Kashmir Hill at the New York Times when she discovered her driving data had been collected without her recalling consenting to share it. Mario Tama/Getty Images
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In their quarterly earnings report out this week, General Motors reported a significant increase in profits for the first three months of the year, citing robust sales of gas-powered cars as a main reason for the bump.

But it’s not all good news for GM these days. The New York Times broke a story in March about how GM was collecting data on driver behaviors and selling it to data brokers, who would then share that information with insurance companies. Many GM car drivers reported that they hadn’t known their data had been collected at all, let alone shared.

Kashmir Hill was the reporter on the story. She joined “Marketplace” host Kimberly Adams to talk about how she found out she was among the GM car owners being tracked.

Kimberly Adams: So back in March, you broke the story of GM sharing consumers’ driving habits. Can you give us some background on what you found back then?

Kashmir Hill: Yes. So, I found that automakers were collecting information from people’s cars about how they drove, including, you know how many miles they were driving, when they were braking too hard and accelerating rapidly. And they were sharing it with risk profiling companies, including LexisNexis, who were then sharing it with insurance companies, and it was affecting what people were paying for insurance.

Adams: And was GM the only company doing this?

Hill: Other companies were doing it. But essentially, I discovered the story because I saw people on online car forums who had cars made by GM, and their insurance rates had gone up. They asked their insurers why. And their insurer said, check your LexisNexis report. And when they did, they would find hundreds of pages of records of every trip that they had taken in their cars. And they just had no idea that that data was being collected by GM.

Adams: And only recently, you found out that you were among the drivers being tracked yourself. How did you get caught up in this?

Hill: Yeah, so while I was reporting the story, I was very aware of the fact that I had a car made by GM. And so I had checked to see if this was happening to us. I had requested my LexisNexis report, it did not have driving data on it. But then after the story came out, my husband requested his LexisNexis report, and when it came, it had all of our driving data. All of the data was just going onto his report because the dealership listed him as the primary owner of the car.

Adams: And you definitely don’t recall consenting to share this data?

Hill: No. I was shocked, but at the same time, this is what drivers of GM vehicles had been telling me, they said, ‘I don’t know how I signed up for this. I don’t understand why it’s happening to me.’ And so this was a unique opportunity for me to report out my own consumer experience and find out, you know, when had we signed up for this? How had we signed up for this? And so that’s what I did. It started with a phone call to our salesman asking him about this.

Adams: And when you spoke to the salesman, and then later GM, the company itself, what did they have to say about how this happened?

Hill: So what I found out is that there was a screen that car buyers are supposed to be shown at the dealership; it’s part of enrolling for OnStar, which is the connected services for GM cars. My husband and I do not recall seeing the screen. And my salesman told me, you know, ‘I just sign people up for OnStar myself, and I always hit yes on that screen.’ He didn’t realize it was going to sign us up for all of our driving data being shared with data brokers. I went to the dealership and asked about that, and a more senior salesman said, ‘Hey, we always show these screens to customers, and they’re the ones who say yes,’ and this is what GM said should happen as well. But even if you had seen the screen, it just didn’t say anything about risk profiling companies, or this being shared with insurance companies. It just was not disclosed. GM has, as of last month, stopped sharing this data with the data brokers. And they told me right before I published the story, actually, that they’re getting rid of the Smart Driver program entirely and unenrolling the many millions of people who are currently part of it.

Adams: So then what lessons do you think people should take from this experience about connected cars in general?

Hill: One reason I’ve been doing these stories is because I do want people to understand that their cars are connected. I don’t think a lot of people realize how many sensors are in their car. You know, increasingly cameras, there’s a sensor in the seats that detects how much you weigh. There’s just so many data collectors in the car now, and that is being sent back to automakers. And then, I think this is a conversation that we need to have as a society, you know, what should the automakers be allowed to do with that data? There are really good reasons for them to have it. They can see when there’s something going wrong with a vehicle they can send you a recall notice, for example, but they’re also exploring selling this data. And this can be quite personal. This includes when you drive your car, where you drive your car. One of the advocates I talked to said, you know, that should be your data. It shouldn’t belong to the automakers, and they shouldn’t be allowed to sell it.

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