Is Your Car Spying on You?

These days, automobiles are more than rolling hunks of steel- many contain networked computers that are connected to the internet. Connected cars, as they are known, are able to share data with devices both inside and outside the car. On the plus side, connected cars can offer futuristic features such as autonomous driving, traffic prediction, and communication with other cars on the road. However, some wonder if all that connectedness could have a dark side.

Cars colluding with insurance companies

Recently, Kashmir Hill at the New York Times reported that users of General Motors OnStar services (including myBuick, myGMC, myChevrolet and myCadillac) were getting surprises when they renewed their auto insurance. Some saw their rates double or triple, and some weren’t able to get auto insurance at all.

When the car owners asked their insurance agents why, they were directed to vehicle data reports used by the insurance companies to evaluate the risks of insuring those drivers. As it turns out, the insurance companies had specific detailed data about the speeds, acceleration, braking, and sharp turns made by these people and were using that data to evaluate the risk of insuring those drivers. The insurance companies were adjusting their pricing as a result of the information about their driving that was shared by the OnStar system.


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Globally positioned vehicles

Systems such as OnStar are not only connected to the internet, they are also linked to Global Positioning System Satellites, which means the location, speed and position of your car is always known to the system. Whether or not you use the applications, those systems are able to collect data about how your car is driven. By default (at least with GM vehicles), this data collection is turned on and, according to the Times, salespeople are paid bonuses for enrolling customers in the OnStar services. However, even people who said they did not use the services and never enrolled in them have reported their data being shared with data brokers who supply the information to the insurance companies. 

How to know if your car is spying on you

If your next auto insurance quote is unusually high, you might want to ask your agent what information the insurance company used to provide that quote. You may be surprised what the answer is.

Beyond querying your insurance agent, you go to to see what kind of data your vehicle might be collecting. You can also request a copy of your personal data from Lexis Nexis ( or Verisk ( 

How you can keep your car from spying on you

After reviewing the terms and conditions and Privacy policies of GM, OnStar, and Toyota, only Toyota specifically mentions driving data: “Usage-Based Auto Insurance. You may choose to opt-in for usage-based insurance products and services. If you opt-in, your Driving Data (such as your vehicle’s acceleration, speed, braking and steering) and Location Data will be used to deliver usage-based insurance services to you, and for quality assurance, analysis, research, and product development. According to the Times, Kia, Subaru, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, and Mitsubishi also participate in these data sharing arrangements.


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What this means is that once you opt-in, data about your driving habits can be shared with companies like Lexis Nexis and Verisk which sell this data to insurance companies. When you apply for an insurance policy, you probably won’t notice the boilerplate language in which you agree to allow the insurance company to access your credit and risk reports (except in California where it’s prohibited).

Most of the data sharing programs seem to have clear, opt-in selections. This can be in driver coaching apps installed in the car, or specific interactions in the car’s setup that give drivers the option to share the information. Also, most insurance companies are now offering good driver or safe driver apps on smartphones, which will also collect the same kind of information. GM seems to have been the only automaker where owners’ data was collected without their knowledge. A follow-up article on Friday, March 22, stated that GM had suspended their data sharing and was reviewing their agreements and systems.

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About Rick Brooks

Rick Brooks, CFA®, CFP® is a partner of Blankinship & Foster LLC and is the firm’s Chief Investment Officer. He is a lead advisor, counseling clients on all aspects of personal financial management. Rick serves on several boards. He is the Chairman of the Board of Girl Scouts San Diego, and also chairs the San Diego Foundation’s Professional Advisor Council. Rick and his family live in Mission Hills. Rick enjoys spending time with his family, theater, cooking, skiing, gaming and reading.

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