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California digital license plates bill: Privacy group concerned

July 19, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
State lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow a test run for digital license plates. A privacy group is alarmed over the idea.

The cars of today are so advanced with GPS, back-up cameras and other high-tech extras.

"The one thing on the car that is still 20th century is the license plate, which is stamped metal," said Steve Wright with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. "We think it can be done more efficiently and at a better cost potentially through digital technology."

A measure at the Capitol would enable the Department of Motor Vehicles to create a pilot program, starting with up to 160,000 fleet vehicles, that would allow digital license plates on a small screen.

Lowandmean.com's demonstration on YouTube shows what one might look like for a motorcycle. It would have wireless capabilities so DMV can directly update your registration once you pay and maybe even help cops locate a stolen car.

DMV customer Gordon Bean just bought a pre-owned car and supports the idea of bypassing the DMV. The state spends $20 million a year on postage alone for renewals.

"I think it'd be a lot easier than have to come down here and pick up our tags or mail anything in," said Bean. "I wouldn't have to be coming down here with my plates to get new ones."

California's version is still under development. New Jersey has its own idea, and a South Carolina company says it can go as far as shaming drivers with messages of "expired" or "uninsured" across the screen.

Privacy groups are concerned. Wireless technology means we can be tracked -- the NSA proved that. An ACLU report out this week revealed many law enforcement agencies across the country are keeping data gathered during license plate scans in parking lots and on roads. The Electronic Frontier Foundation would like to see more protections.

"Consumers are simply giving up too much of their private data, and it's the Legislature's job to protect average Californians from overly-intrusive government snooping," said Nate Cordozo with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"I think they're going too far with a lot of things," said DMV customer Antoine Cockerham. "I think things should be the way they are. If it's not broken, why fix it?"

If this pilot program is approved and is successful enough for public use, tech experts believe the digital plates could eventually show advertising when the vehicle is stopped for at least four seconds and be a moneymaker for the state.

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