Column

Starkman: Why GM Owners Must Fear Mary Barra’s Big Brother Privacy Invasions

April 01, 2024, 11:40 PM

The writer is a Los Angeles freelancer and former Detroit News business reporter. This column first appeared on his blog, StarkmanApproved.com

By Eric Starkman

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I’m aghast at GM CEO Mary Barra’s shameless dishonesty, deceptions, and delusions. Barra for years crowed about how she was going to transform GM into an electric vehicles powerhouse and vowed she would be selling more EVs than Tesla by the end of next year. Tesla in 2023 sold 1.8 million electric vehicles, while GM sold 75,883 EVs. Tesla made big profits selling its EVs, despite having to slash its prices. GM loses money on its EVs, all of which have been problem plagued with software and other serious issues.

Barra isn’t humbled by her failures, perhaps mistakenly believing that she’s worth the annual $29 million the GM board she chairs has awarded her in recent years, more than four times the pay of Toyota’s CEO, who runs a much bigger, better managed, and more profitable company. Instead, Barra continues to talk smack about her grandiose plans to be an EV leader, shamelessly faking it despite compelling evidence that GM under her leadership might forever be an EV laggard.

Barra’s audacity is readily apparent in this Yahoo story, a representative example of the stenography journalism Barra knows she can count on from the fawning corporate media that more than 10 years into her tenure is still celebrating that she is GM’s first female CEO. The Yahoo story provides no critical perspective or analysis, allowing Barra to get away with this disingenuous comment: “Our vision is to create a world with zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion.” 

If Barra was indeed committed to a world of zero crashes, she would never have greenlighted the EV Hummer, a more than 9,000-pound monster pickup that two reviewers warned has inadequate brakes given the vehicle’s brawn and power. Jennifer Homendy, who heads the National Transportation Safety Board, also warned about the dangers of the EV Hummer.

Regarding zero emissions, the EPA said GM’s emissions increased more than any other automaker in the 2017-2022 period, save for Honda, because of Barra’s increased emphasis on more profitable gas guzzling trucks and SUVs. A climate change advocacy group recently ranked Barra’s EV Hummer as one of the most environmentally hazardous vehicles on the road, more than most gas engine vehicles. If Barra was indeed committed to zero congestion, GM would be manufacturing electric buses, as is China-based BYD, which already is doing a tidy business selling them in the U.S.

But it is this comment that exposes Barra’s fundamental dishonesty in her public comments:

We clearly have to demonstrate. . .that we have software in our vehicles that enables a better customer experience and easier customer experience, and surprises, and delights . . .and doing the right thing for our owners.

A customer experience that surprises and delights? Doing the right thing for GM’s vehicle owners? Here’s the sorry truth about the software experience that Barra has been surprising and delighting GM’s late-model vehicle owners with.  

Kashmir Hill, an experienced New York Times technology writer specializing in privacy issues, a few weeks ago published this article revealing that unknown to many owners of GM’s internet enabled vehicles, the automaker was amassing and selling critical data about their driving behaviors to data brokers, who in turn sold the data to insurance companies. The data was paydirt for insurance companies as it included critical information like how often and long GM owners drive, how fast they take corners, how hard they hit the brakes, and whether they speed.

Hill readily found examples of hapless GM customers whose insurance rates went up considerably because of GM’s data, but notably didn’t feature any customers whose rates went down.

“It felt like a betrayal,” Kenn Dahl told Hill. “They’re taking information that I didn’t realize was going to be shared and screwing with our insurance.”

Thanks to GM’s driver surveillance activities, Dahl, 65, was hit was a 21% increase in his insurance premium despite never having been deemed responsible for a single accident.

Hill reported that some GM car owners said the automaker tracked them despite never having activated a GM connectivity feature called OnStar Smart Driver, which enabled the company’s Big Brother driving surveillance.  Adding insult to injury, the Detroit Free Press’ Jamie LaReau reported in August 2022 that while GM previously claimed its OnStar connectivity and surveillance package was optional, in fact it was mandatory and cost $1,500 extra.

Buyers of GM internet-enabled vehicles likely don’t know this, but Barra is hoping to soak them with fees and surcharges that would put America’s airlines, hotels, and cable companies to shame. Barra in 2021 boasted to Wall Street that by the end of the decade, GM would be a “platform innovator” generating as much as $25 billion from its software-enabled services, like heated seats to warm drivers’ derrieres.

That’s the reason GM opted not to include Apple’s CarPlay as part of its infotainment systems. Barra wanted to control customer data so she could better exploit GM’s unwitting buyers. Of course, GM claimed that its proprietary software and interface would create a better customer infotainment experience.

Barra’s best laid software plans were paved with bad intentions and the New York Times called her out. Within about a week of the Times publishing its GM privacy violation story, the automaker said it would stop selling its driver surveillance data to brokers.

“Customer trust is a priority for us, and we are actively evaluating our privacy processes and policies,” GM spinmeister Kevin Kelly told the Detroit Free Press.

Kelly’s comment is representative of the deceptions and dishonesty of GM’s PR people. If customer trust was indeed a priority, GM wouldn’t have sold the data it accumulated from unwitting customers in the first place. GM’s PR apples didn’t fall far from the CEO tree.

Tellingly, GM last year lured Lin-Hua Wu from Google to oversee its communications. Working at Google, Wu acquired considerable experience managing communications for privacy violations and other questionable behavior, including allegations that forced Google to agree to a settlement possibly valued as much as much as $7.8 billion that makes no provision for damages that users of Google Chrome can still pursue.  

Wu already appears in her element at GM, making Barra and the journalists who fawn over GM’s CEO feel good about themselves.

In short order, Barra, Wu, and Kelly are going to fast learn about a Michigan attorney named E. Powell Miller, whom I’m proud to say I profiled three years ago. Miller is one of two attorneys that would make me soil myself if I was a CEO and he served me or my company with a damning lawsuit. The other is James Butler, the Georgia attorney who was lead plaintiff counsel responsible for the landmark $1.7 billion punitive judgement against Ford Motor Co., who I’ve also previously profiled.

When I first read the Times’ story about GM’s privacy violations, I viewed the allegations as a very big deal, but wondered if perhaps I was mistaken given the limited media pickup. Reading this story by The Detroit Free Press’ LaRue last Friday I was heartened that GM had been hit with a second privacy violation lawsuit for its OnStar surveillance and data sales and that Powell Miller was the one who filed it. Miller’s lawsuit seeks class action status.

The Freep said Miller declined to comment on his lawsuit, which is hardly a surprise. The best lawyers argue their cases in court, not the media, in deference to judges that will govern their legal proceedings.

Miller is not only widely regarded as one of Michigan’s best lawyers, a state with an overabundance of them, but also one of the top lawyers in America.

Miller’s accomplishments outlined in his bio are too extensive to mention here. Suffice to say, he was named one of Michigan’s Top 10 lawyers for 15 consecutive years and one of America’s best lawyers every year since 2005.  He has been retained by several Fortune 500 companies to represent them in litigation throughout the U.S., including New York, California, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Illinois, Indiana, and Arkansas.

Miller’s settlements achieved $6 billion in recoveries. He has prevailed at virtually every trial he’s argued.

According to Miller’s LinkedIn profile, his firm represented clients in seven of the eight largest class actions and mass tort 2023 settlements in Michigan, including three that involved privacy violations and one involving a data breach.

Miller is an attorney with a strong sense of right and wrong, even regarding matters where he’s not legally involved. He came to my attention reading this New York Post story about a Brooklyn resident who spent 15 hours in jail rather than surrender a pit bull that he cared for and was trained to sniff out bed bugs. The pit bull belonged to an environmental company that originally specialized in bed bugs but during the pandemic pivoted to Covid cleaning and sanitizing and had no further need for the pit bull’s special skills.

Miller, who is a dog lover and his spouse the founder of an advocacy group for gray wolves, read the Post story, called up the lawyer for the environmental company, and negotiated a settlement, which he paid out of his own pocket.

To be clear, Miller never expected publicity for his heroic dog rescue. I called Miller out of the blue after reading the Post story because I was curious why he rescued the dog of someone he had never met. “I thought it was ridiculous that criminal and civil justice resources were being used to settle the matter,” Miller told me. “(The dog’s owner) should never have been in prison.”

To be fair, GM isn’t alone looking to make a killing from aggregating data on its customers and selling the information. Mozilla last September deemed all 25 automakers it examined as being privacy nightmares. The Times reported that other automakers sell surveillance customer information to data brokers who in turn sell it to insurance brokers but didn’t make clear why GM appears to be the automotive industry’s privacy violation leader.

One possible reason is rival automakers are less deceptive about their practices. Ford, for example, told the New York Times that it will only share a customer’s driving behavior when the customer gives explicit consent via an in-vehicle touch screen. By comparison, GM drivers who insisted they didn’t opt in possibly unknowingly signed up at the dealership, where salespeople can receive bonuses for successful enrollment of customers in OnStar.

Meantime, the billions of dollars from software services and other businesses Barra envisioned aren’t likely to materialize anytime soon. GM is struggling mightily with software issues that are plaguing not only its electric vehicles but also some of Barra’s most lucrative trucks. A software guru from Apple Barra hailed as GM’s savior recently stepped down after seven months on the job because of health reasons. GM’s head of digital inexplicably just left the company. Last September, GM named a new CIO but he, too, inexplicably left two months later.

GM’s driverless taxi Cruise business, which Bloomberg valued at $30 billion in 2022, is in shambles. Barra is chair of Cruise’s board and previously boasted the unit would generate $50 billion in annual revenues by the end of the decade.

Barra’s media acolytes prefer to call these setbacks as “challenges.” I call it karma, and I’m looking forward to Powell Miller serving GM under Barra’s ethically challenged leadership its just deserts.

Reach the writer at eric@starkmanapproved.com. Confidentiality is assured.
 


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