WASHINGTON, Dec. 1 (UPI) -- Every time my wife urges me to look into getting OnStar, the digital, computerized communications device installed in many newer-model General Motors vehicles, I have resisted.
Yes, I know; I've heard the tear-jerk ads on the radio with the plaintive voices of supposedly real wives, mothers, and metro-sexual-sounding men fearing for their lives because they've locked themselves out of their cars and have called OnStar so someone can get them out of the jam into which they've put themselves. Still, I've not been convinced the loss of privacy is worth the remote possibility that I would find myself in a life-threatening situation from which the only possible salvation would be my ability to reach out and touch an OnStar employee.
Now, even my wife agrees that OnStar -- or similar tracking devices installed in non-GM vehicles -- would be a really bad idea. What changed her mind? In addition to the irrefutable eloquence of my arguments, it was a recent story, tucked away in an Internet news service, describing a recent federal court decision that confirms what my own conspiratorial-oriented mind always suspected was true. The FBI and other police agencies have been using these factory-installed tracking systems as a way to eavesdrop on passengers in vehicles, without the folks in the car even knowing the government was listening to their conversations! Unbelievable, you scoff? Nope, it's as real as the genetically engineered smells automobile manufacturers are now putting into their cars.
Even though the federal court decision -- rendered by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers several western states, including California -- concluded that the FBI could no longer surreptitiously listen in via computerized communications systems like OnStar, it did so only for a tangential reason and therefore left the door wide open for continued invasions of privacy.
This tends to get a bit technical, but let me see if I can describe it accurately in a way that makes sense to us non-techno-geeks.
The manner in which the FBI has been worming its way into individual vehicles equipped with one of these "emergency" communications systems requires them to temporarily disable the particular system in the "target vehicle." The targeted vehicle therefore cannot send an outgoing "emergency" signal while the eavesdroppers are "dropping in."
Let's assume John or Jane Doe is proudly tooling around New York City in their late-model Cadillac equipped with OnStar. Unbeknownst to them, an FBI snoop believes they are discussing matters of gravest national security interest during their jaunt. The agent has therefore directed the Bureau's computer to reverse-engineer OnStar so it becomes a listening device instead of a transmitting device.
Unfortunately, if during the time the FBI is thus listening in, John or Jane suffers a real emergency, their expensive computer communications device cannot send out a distress signal.
This scenario is what the federal court seized on as the basis for slapping the FBI's hand. The customer has paid for an emergency communications device, and because the FBI snooping renders it potentially incapable of providing that service, the FBI has improperly disrupted a service the customer has paid for. This it cannot do, sayeth the Court.
Of course, what the Court should have focused on is the gross and unconstitutional invasion of privacy represented by this new manner of electronic snooping. Instead the Court essentially told the government, go back to the engineering room, and if you can come up with a way to use OnStar to listen in to what's going on inside private vehicles without hampering the other, legitimate functions of the system, then boys, go right ahead with our blessing.
The implications of this opinion are not exactly reassuring.
What's even more frightening, however, is that this latest peek into the sub rosa world of high-tech government snooping is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. For the past 10 years, the government has used a little-known provision of the federal law, known as the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act, to browbeat the telecommunications industry into spending billions of dollars to make its technology eavesdrop-friendly, requiring technology advances to include built-in ways for the government to use that technology to listen in to whoever is using it.
The government's efforts to thus enhance its ability to listen in to our conversations have moved into high gear in the aftermath of 9/11.
Cell phones already will be required to have tracking devices installed therein, for the convenience of government employees who wish to track us and listen in on our cell phone conversations. Now we find out that automobile emergency communications systems can serve as one-way, secret phone lines directly to the FBI. We've all heard the stories that our home phones and computers serve the same purpose. As more information emerges such as the one concerning the OnStar court decision, it's getting harder and harder to dismiss these stories as "black helicopter" fantasies.
-- Bob Barr is a former member of the United States Congress and a former U.S. Attorney in the state of Georgia.
-- United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues.