November 19, 2003 12:07 PM PST

Court to FBI: No spying on in-car computers

The FBI and other police agencies may not eavesdrop on conversations inside automobiles equipped with OnStar or similar dashboard computing systems, a federal appeals court ruled.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said Tuesday that the FBI is not legally entitled to remotely activate the system and secretly use it to snoop on passengers, because doing so would render it inoperable during an emergency.

 In a split 2-1 rulingthe majority wrote that "the company could not assist the FBI without disabling the system in the monitored car" and said a district judge was wrong to have granted the FBI its request for surreptitious monitoring.

The court did not reveal which brand of remote-assistance product was being used but did say it involved "luxury cars" and, in a footnote, mentioned Cadillac, which sells General Motors' OnStar technology in all current models. After learning that the unnamed system could be remotely activated to eavesdrop on conversations after a car was reported stolen, the FBI realized it would be useful for "bugging" a vehicle, Judges Marsha Berzon and John Noonan said.

When FBI agents remotely activated the system and were listening in, passengers in the vehicle could not tell that their conversations were being monitored. After "vehicle recovery mode" was disabled, the court said, passengers were notified by the radio displaying an alert and, if the radio was not on, the system beeping.

David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, called the court's decision "a pyrrhic victory" for privacy.

"The problem (the court had) with the surveillance was not based on privacy grounds at all," Sobel said. "It was more interfering with the contractual relationship between the service provider and the customer, to the point that the service was being interrupted. If the surveillance was done in a way that was seamless and undetectable, the court would have no problem with it."

Under current law, the court said, companies may only be ordered to comply with wiretaps when the order would cause a "minimum of interference." After the system's spy capabilities were activated, "pressing the emergency button and activation of the car's airbags, instead of automatically contacting the company, would simply emit a tone over the already open phone line," the majority said, concluding that a wiretap would create substantial interference.

"The FBI, however well-intentioned, is not in the business of providing emergency road services and might well have better things to do when listening in than respond with such services to the electronic signal sent over the line," the majority said.

In a dissent, Judge Richard Tallman argued that a wiretap would not create unnecessary interference with emergency service and noted that "there is no evidence that any service disruption actually occurred. The record does not indicate that the subjects of the surveillance tried to use the system while the FBI was listening. One cannot disrupt a service unless and until it is being utilized.

"The record indicates that the only method of executing the intercept order in this case involved activating the car's microphone and transferring the car's cellular telephone link to the FBI. This conduct might have amounted to a service disruption, had the subjects of the surveillance attempted to use the system, but there is no evidence that they did."

The majority did point out that the FBI cannot order the system to be changed so that the emergency functions would work during surveillance. Congress ordered telephone companies to do just that in the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, but current law does not "require that the company redesign its system to facilitate surveillance by law enforcement."

General Motors did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. Its OnStar privacy policy says: "OnStar may disclose personal information if required to do so by law on (sic) in the good faith belief that such disclosure is reasonably necessary to comply with the legal process...OnStar cannot accept any responsibility for accidental or inadvertent disclosure, unauthorized access or for other disclosure as required by law or described in this policy."

The decision is binding only in California, Oregon, Nevada, Washington, Hawaii, and other states that fall within the 9th Circuit's jurisdiction. No other appeals court appears to have ruled on the matter.


Join the conversation!
Add your comment
KENOSHA.Wi. 53142 April 28,2008


I am a citizen of the United States and have been addressing several Senators with the issues and problems to follow
including Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama as well as several others and will in the near future be speaking in front of
you all because of Americans being held hostage by Navy personnel from Great Lakes Navy base as well as by
veterans used to Stalk and intimidate by the abuse of Power of the IRS and the United States Dept. of Justice. I
have been taken out of and kept from employment by them as they attempt a hostile search for money, i have my
phones tapped and computer hacked by government personnel spending alot of government budget following me
everyday for at least 8 months, all my family and past associates has been paid by them to create some ftctious story
because of a conspiracy, initated by the FBI from Chicago and brought to Wisconsin. All of this is a clear violation of
my Civil Rights and also the rights of my daughter who has been questioned and harrassed at school by them, she
is 5 years old. I have had to replace my computer 3 times because they are camped upstairs and i listen to them thru
the vents as they call themselves strategizing but not very well if I hear your every attempt to play on American
citizens.My family has had their cars as well as i have tampered by them in and attempt to get us or me to spend
money, they have raised bills above normal, been in my garage leaving lights on in an order to do so stopped my
emails from reaching their intended destinations and faked as the recipient, they have acted as operators and
fake being the person I called on the other line, I have been told by the police that they would not do anything
because they know who it is which is fither showing the attempt to keep me hostage. I have filed lawsuits and will
continue because I believe even that was manipulated by them as everything and everyone else has been, I have
talked to the security chief after calling the Chief of Great Lakes Navybase, no cooperation, Bush is who I believe
brought this because of corrupt judges from Chicago, after I brought this out to officials. American citizens who are
not terrorist being treated as if they are, I say send some more troops to war since we have so many of them to follow
people around everyday, someone is reimbursing them for this large price tag of surviellance. I see the plan must
be to discredit or in gov. terms attempt to burn me or ruin my career because they have some corrupt people in
the government.
Darryl Kinney 7301 98th Ave. UnitD
Kenosha,WI 53142 262-237-1310
Posted by DWK411 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The fact of the matter is that all law enforcement agencies work FOR THOSE WHO HAVE MONEY!!! They do not care about those of us who have little or none. They are there to preserve those who do and the rest of us are "suspects" to do with as they please. The GM OnStar system has provided these law enforcement officials with the ideal tool for perpetuating this service to the corrupt power hungry people whom the police serve.You can be monitored, your vehicle disabled all in the name of "justice". Hah-hah, what justice? Police, FBI, DEA, ATF and of course the CIA live by there own set of rules, not ours governed by the Constitution! To them OnStar provides them with the capability to easily take people off the street who question their power and authority. Your best bet: STAY AWAY FROM ONSTAR!!! This statement by OnStar proves the point" "OnStar cannot accept any responsibility for INADVERTANT, (that's debatable!), disclosure, unauthorized access or for other disclosure as required by law or described in this policy". In other words, "we allow law enforcement any access it wants and do not take any responsibility as to whether that is legal or not". This is scary...very scary! Law enforcement agencies have been looking at how to set up a police state in this country and now they have a nice tool to help them! If I get in a wreck, I'll call using my cell phone and if I can't do that, I'm going to probably die anyway. so as far as I am concerned GM can keep OnStar, I don't want it thank you!
Posted by BigAl35540 (136 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The truth is they implant a wireless in-body antenna or nerve stimulator inside you. Dr. Lawrence Chang of Pariser Dermatology in Newport News, VA (without my knowledge and consent)did this to me. Even after it started protruding from my scar, he refused to remove it. I can barely walk now due to this. I have bruises up my spine and across my back. I have pictures. The Virginia State Police and local police use lasers to hack into your electronics (per State Trooper Jared Vance). They beam voices into your head. See seeing thru walls with a wireless router. Check out the audio spotlight by Holosonics. They taze people into what calls "excited delirium". This makes citizens act in ways you normally would not. (I am wondering if law enforcement is responsible for the elementary school murders) See Daily Press 3/21 - 3/27 and read the stories. In Virginia, the suicide rate has escalated. I believe this is why the military suicide rate is so high. Read Brian Castner's The Long Walk. He says on page 67, "this is my new life. It's intolerable" They are torturing our military into suicide. They have created what they call "crisis stabilization wards" (truly gitmos) where they torture you and flat line repeatedly. They electronically rape and sodomize you. They call it rape and sodomy. They know how it feels and they do it anyway. I have been tortured by these criminals for almost five years. The Community Service Boards and Emergency rooms are in on it. I consider this to be torture, and the mark of the beast. I have an appointment next week with a general surgeon who I hope will honor my constitutional right to privacy, freedom of religion, and control over my mind an body. They use this to see what your brain sees through you eyes and hear what you hear. It is "ambient intelligence and surveillance". They use ubiquitous computing to carry out their torture. I have two cases in the fourth circuit court of appeals. You can read and see the fraud, corruption and abuse at Sadly, the Federal District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen, per her own clerk of courts, knows how excruciatingly painful it is but fails to grant as motion for cessation of torture. Go to and search Brandon Raub. The colleges and cities are receiving millions of dollars to torture and abuse our citizens. I have an article on Terrorism and Mental Health how these weapons so cruel. In addition, I have a book: "Safeguards in the world of ambient intelligent" that explains how they read you mind. I believe this to be the weapon of the anti-Christ. These people assault and batter your mind, spirit and soul. They are committing the unpardonable sin of blasphemy. You heart and mind are filled with the Holy Spirit and this assault on the Holy Spirit is unforgivable. Virginia has a law that bans implanting microchips, but the state police are violating their own laws!
Posted by hiedak (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot



RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.