A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Cash for Clunkers


Q: Fox News’ Glenn Beck said that the government will get complete access to your computer and all of your files when you log on to Cars.gov for the Cash for Clunkers program. Is there any truth to this?

A: This claim is false. Beck quoted from a security message on the site for dealers, not the site for the general public.

FULL ANSWER

We’ve received many inquiries about this claim, which stems from a July 31 episode of Glenn Beck’s show on Fox News. He had invited Fox News anchor Kimberly Guilfoyle onto his show to talk about the Consumer Assistance Recycle and Save Act of 2009, more commonly known as the "Cash for Clunkers" program. The program gives consumers vouchers of up to $4,500 dollars in exchange for their old "clunker" cars. The vouchers go toward the purchase of new, more fuel efficient cars.

Beck warned viewers "do not try this at home" and then demonstrated for the camera, along with Guilfoyle, how the Web site associated with the program – Cars.gov – could allow government access to a user’s personal computer files. Although the page did not load properly for Beck during the segment, he read from a graphic showing what the message would have said:

Beck: This application provides access to the DoT CARS system. When logged on to the CARS system, your computer is considered a federal computer system and it is property of the United States Government. Any or all uses of this system and all files on this system may be intercepted, monitored, recorded, copied, audited, inspected, and disclosed to authorized CARS, DoT, and law enforcement personnel, as well as authorized officials of other agencies, both domestic and foreign.

Beck noted that people would get this security warning if "the dealer goes to Cars.gov" (emphasis added). However, he and Guilfoyle distorted this important fact by telling viewers that they shouldn’t access the Web site at home, and that Beck himself had used someone else’s computer for the purposes of the demonstration. Following Beck’s reading, Guilfoyle alleged that when a user logs onto Cars.gov and clicks through the privacy agreement, the government will take control of your computer and private information:

Guilfoyle: Could it be any more broad and frightening? Here you are trying to be a good citizen and make a charitable contribution, do something that’s good – and guess what? They are jumping right inside you, seizing all of your personal and private information, and it’s absolutely legal, Glenn. They can do it. … They can continue to track you basically forever. Once they’ve tapped into your system, the government, of course, has … malware systems and tracking cookies and they can tap in anytime they want.

Beck even went so far as to claim that should someone do this, "everything in your home is now theirs."

Not Applicable to the General Public

In the segment, Beck and Guilfoyle had read the original statement correctly – but the statement came from a secure  Web site meant for dealers only, with key sections not accessible to the public. The language in question was removed from that Web site on August 3. Even a quick glance at the Web site Beck accessed on his program shows that it is not the same page seen by consumers.

FactCheck.org spoke with Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which administers Cars.gov. When asked whether computers logged into Cars.gov are considered property of the United States government, Tyson replied: "Of course not." He continued:

Rae Tyson, NHTSA: [That is] certainly not the case. The dealer was entering into a secure site to transact business with the government regarding the transfer of funds and so forth, and those sites for the protection of the dealer have to be secure. There may have been some … language reminding the dealer that they were dealing with a government agency, but there was certainly no reciprocal ability to tap into anyone’s computer.

When asked why the words removed on August 3 were included to begin with, Tyson said:

Rae Tyson, NHTSA: It’s standard … language you’d find on any government Web site where you’re transferring data on a secure site.  It’s basically to protect the dealers. They are providing us with a lot of very, very sensitive information about financial transactions, about bank accounts … so it is incumbent upon us to make sure that the site is very secure. The last thing a dealer would want would be someone to have access to the financial numbers.

Glenn Beck Responds

On August 3, Beck posted an update on his Web site, standing by his original assertion. He emphasized the fact that the language on the Web site was originally meant for car dealers, but said this was still troublesome.

Beck: If you are the administrator, you know, in your company, let’s say you’re … the guy who is processing all of the cash for clunkers thing. You get on your computer and you type in all of the information, you go onto the website, you click on something and it comes up and it says, warning, you are entering a secure site. Okay? You’ve seen that warning before. You go to input more information about who’s going to buy this car and this warning comes up on the screen: This application provides access to the DoT CARS system. When logged onto the CARS system, your computer is considered a federal computer system and it is property of the United States government…

Now, these blogs have come out this weekend and said, "Oh, there goes Glenn Beck trying to stir up trouble again. It doesn’t affect the average person. It’s just the car dealerships." I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It’s just the car dealerships. Oh, so then I shouldn’t care? It’s not the average people? It’s just the average people who are in small business running the car dealerships.

Nevertheless, Beck’s show gave viewers the wrong impression as to what the government site could do to personal computers. Even for dealers, the site can’t, as Guilfoyle said, "seiz[e] all of your personal and private information." The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that crusades against what it calls "unparalleled invasions of privacy" brought about by new technology, scoffed at Beck’s mistaken claims. In commentary posted on the EFF Web site, staff member Hugh D’Andrade called the terms-of-service language "a shocking example of the kind of problems that can come with click-through agreements written by faceless lawyers and basically imposed on the rest of us," adding: "This hopefully careless language demonstrates the concerns that EFF has long raised about the creeping reduction in user privacy and rights online that we see through various means."

But he said both Beck and Guilfoyle were wrong:

D’Andrade, Electronic Frontier Foundation: Clicking "continue" on a poorly worded Terms of Service on a government site will not give the government the ability to "tap into your system… any time they want." The seizure of the personal and private information stored on your computer through a one-sided click-through terms of service is not “conscionable” as lawyers say, and would not be enforceable even if the cars.gov website was capable of doing it, which we seriously doubt. Moreover, the law has long forbidden the government from requiring you to give up unrelated constitutional rights (here the 4th Amendment right to be free from search and seizure) as a condition of receiving discretionary government benefits like participation in the Cars for Clunkers program.

The problems with overreaching terms of service are real, and EFF has been working hard to combat them, especially when your privacy is at stake. Companies and government departments repeatedly sow the seeds of confusion, concern and outrage when they sneak catch-all terms into the small print. Our ToSBack site tracks these agreements and allows the public to find out what they say and track their changes over time. But terms of service agreements don’t go as far as allowing the government ongoing, free range into your personal computer with a single mouse click. At least not yet.

Beck and Guilfoyle may have read the original statement correctly, but their interpretation of the language was misleading. Consumers and dealers alike can rest assured that a careless click online will not result in federal ownership of their computers.

– Andrew Karter

Sources

"Glenn Beck: Cash for Clunkers update." GlennBeck.com. 3 Aug 2009, accessed 4 Aug 2009.

"Cars.gov Terms of Service: What Glenn Beck Gets Right and Wrong." EFF.org. 3 Aug 2009, accessed 4 Aug 2009.

Tyson, Rae. Interview with FactCheck.org. 5 Aug 2009.

Farley, Robert. "Is Big Brother snooping on Cash for Clunkers site?" PolitiFact.com. 3 Aug 2009, accessed 4 Aug 2009.