Privacy group warns against California plan for digital license plates

Sac Bee – by Melody Gutierrez

California license plates could get a high-tech makeover with a digital screen and wireless capabilities as part of a Senate bill making its way through the Legislature.

Senate Bill 806 authorizes the Department of Motor Vehicles to create a pilot program at no cost to the state with as many as 160,000 cars testing the digital plates patented by San Francisco-based Smart Plate Mobile. The state hopes the technology will improve efficiencies in vehicle registrations and potentially save the DMV some of the $20 million spent each year in postage for renewals.  

Privacy advocates say the approach could leave motorists vulnerable to government surveillance by undoing a Supreme Court ruling that required authorities to obtain search warrants before using vehicle tracking devices.

“It means everyone driving in California will have their location accessible to the government at any time,” said Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In 2010, the Legislature considered a similar bill supported by Smart Plate Mobile, with the noted addition of allowing for scrolling advertisements when a vehicle comes to a stop for four seconds or longer.

Sen. Curren Price, D-Los Angeles, carried both bills, although Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, took over this year’s version after Price moved to the Los Angeles City Council. Price billed the 2010 legislation, which died in committee, as a potential revenue generator for the cash-starved state because the DMV would have been able to sell ad space on the plates.

Advertisements are not envisioned under the current bill being considered, which cleared the Senate and is now in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Jim Lites, a lobbyist hired by Smart Plate Mobile, said the pilot program created under the current bill will focus on vehicle registration efficiencies that can be created, not advertisement revenue.

“Let’s focus on that and let the Legislature decide what they would like this technology to do, assuming this pilot is successful,” Lites said.

The bill is supported by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, Bay Area Council and Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce. No opposition is listed, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation said it is paying attention after learning about the bill Friday.

“We’re surprised and disappointed that this bill seems to be proceeding without any serious exploration of the privacy risks,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the nonprofit group. “Just because it’s a pilot doesn’t excuse the Legislature of responsibility.”

The digital plate is essentially a 12-inch-by-6-inch computer screen with “California” in red across the top and license numbers in blue.

The law would create a three-year program run by the DMV to test the digital plates on California roadways. Lites said the pilot program would likely focus on vehicle fleets owned by large private companies. These companies often have to spend an inordinate amount of time managing the various registration renewals of fleet vehicles to ensure they are up to date.

“When you have 400 to 500 vehicles, you can imagine having one person parked at a DMV office every day processing registrations,” Hueso said. “The DMV would prefer not having that person in their office every day and just send the registration electronically.”

Hueso said the bill is about encouraging innovation in California.

“It could definitely take hold in terms of people who put a lot of effort into the appearance of their car,” Hueso said. “It would be a novelty for people.”

The technology is also capable of displaying Amber Alerts or acting as a toll reading device, Lites said.

He said concerns over privacy have come up, but dismissed them because it is an opt-in program and there would be security controls in place to protect information.

Cardozo of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said the technology could lead to police monitoring, particularly in light of a Supreme Court ruling last year that said law enforcement needed a search warrant to place a tracking device on a vehicle.

“If the technology is already on the car, then the government wouldn’t need a warrant to place the device because it’s already there,” Cardozo said.

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2 thoughts on “Privacy group warns against California plan for digital license plates

  1. “It means everyone driving in California will have their location accessible to the government at any time,”

    I don’t know anyone who doesn’t take their cell phone with them everywhere they go, so this is a moot point.

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