Digital license plates in California bring up privacy concerns

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CA_DMV_LogoThe Gadget Guy reviews the latest technology for the government and explores related trends and hot topics.

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles has been thinking about introducing digital license plates in an effort to save money. This started back in 2010, when the state assembly considered a bill (SB 1453) authorizing DMV to research digital plates that would look and work like a computer screen that displays a reproduction of a license plate, with the ability to display ads when the vehicle is stopped for four seconds or longer.

Although this would have no doubt earned some money for the state, the bill died in committee due to various concerns.

Now they are revisiting the idea, only this time without the ads. According to the Sacramento Bee, Senate Bill 806 authorizes DMV 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.

Even without ad revenue, California should be able to save much of the $20 million it spends each year in postage for renewals should the program be extended to the entire car population.

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. DMV would be able to prevent the license information from displaying should the driver fail to renew their registration. This, of course, would require DMV’s systems to be in communication with the license displays, and that is drawing a lot of concerns about privacy.

“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 at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Bee. “Just because it’s a pilot doesn’t excuse the legislature of responsibility.”

There are also technological hurdles involved in implementing such a pilot program. To take the place of a physical license plate, the display would have to be bright enough to be read in direct sunlight, and at extremely oblique angles. From my experience with testing LCD displays, I can tell you these two capabilities aren’t found in every monitor. But these obstacles are not insurmountable with the right combination of color clarity and bright back-lighting.

It will be interesting to see how this pilot fares. If it means less time waiting in line at DMV for some of us, that is definitely a worthy goal.

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California, Commentary, Education, Education / STEM, Gadget Guy, Guest Columns, Lifestyle, Tech
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