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California Could Be First to Get Electronic License Plates...But Would They Be Like a 'Moving Wiretap'?


"...seems to be proceeding without any serious exploration of the privacy risks."

California has jumped ahead of other states with passage of a bill that would allow for an electronic license plate program -- at least as a pilot to start. But some worry about the privacy issues the system, which could change messages on a car's plate, could have.

While still awaiting the signature of Gov. Jerry Brown (D), if it moves forward, the bill would allow for the pilot program to involve 0.5 percent of registered cars in the state and would be completed no later than the beginning of 2017.

According to The Sacramento Bee, the plates would be like a digital 12-by-6-inch computer screen. Generally, the plates would have only the license plate number, but the technology could also display Amber Alerts or facilitate toll payments as well.

"What fun it will be to see Ferraris with the word 'STOLEN' -- or Priuses with the word 'TASTELESS,'" Chris Matyszczyk for CNET joked. Then he continued, "Actually, I'm not sure that last one will be an option. Even so, the sheer instancy and convenience will fascinate many."

electronic plate While California is one step closer to starting to adopt an electronic license plate system, a company in South Carolina is starting discussions in that state as well. Such plats would show the license number but could also have messages like "EXPIRED" or "STOLEN." (Image source: Compliance Innovations)

If such a system were to expand beyond its pilot phase, one can imagine the privacy implications though. Ars Technica spelled out some of the concerns:

After all, if the state’s authorities can send and receive data to your digital license plate, then they have to know where you are. That would make the use of the increasingly ubiquitous license plate readers completely irrelevant—law enforcement likely would be able to either directly access location data in real-time and/or get historical travel data.

The state senator who introduced the bill, Sen. Ben Hueso, a Democrat who represents San Diego, did not respond to Ars’ multiple requests for an interview or comment. It still remains unclear as to exactly why this bill was proposed and what its objectives are. The precise technical details of the program are similarly unclear, as is how long plate information would be retained and who would have access to it.

“We've been talking to Sen. Hueso on the bill, and it's gotten some amendments that address some of the location privacy issues—within the pilot, the DMV would not be receiving any location information,” Lee Tien, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told Ars. “But the company that operates the plates would [have access, and] they are going to be controlling what's on the plates.”

The privacy advocate likened the proposed system to a moving wiretap that reveals an individual’s vehicle location constantly.

"We're surprised and disappointed that this bill seems to be proceeding without any serious exploration of the privacy risks," Lee Tien, senior staff attorney with EFF, told The Sacramento Bee of the program in July. "Just because it's a pilot doesn't excuse the legislature of responsibility."

But California isn't the only state that has electronic license plates at least on the discussion table. South Carolina last month heard proposals from a company called Compliance Innovations about a similar system. Compliance Innovations is billing the program as one that could help streamline the registration process, in addition to helping authorities by labeling cars that might be in violation.

California's DMV spends about $20 million each year on new tags, according to KCRA-TV, which could be saved if renewal became electronic as with such a license plate program.

Featured image via Shutterstock.com.



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