Last year California began letting drivers purchase digital license plates from the company Reviver, becoming the third U.S. state, along with Michigan and Arizona, to allow such plates.
The plates are effectively miniature tv screens that replace the standard metal license plates; they come with Bluetooth and LTE connectivity similar to what is found in cell phones. The wired variant even has a built-in GPS tracker.
The plates offer a number of novel features that drivers may find beneficial, such as the ability to display personalized messages, make automatic toll and parking payments, summon roadside assistance, and even perform vehicle diagnostics. Drivers can customize the border and letter colors and even register their cars from a phone app. If the car is stolen, the plate can be tracked through wireless technology.
But connectivity comes with privacy risks, as a team of “white hat” hackers found.
According to their blog post, the cybersecurity researchers who discovered the vulnerability found they could gain “super administrative access” to Reviver’s systems, giving them access to a wide range of sensitive data and capabilities. With their newfound credentials, they were able to track the GPS location of all Reviver customers, overwrite customer data, and change the personalized message section of the license plates to whatever they wanted.
The disturbing finding prompted Reviver to take quick action, stating in a Vicearticle that it had patched the vulnerabilities and implemented additional safeguards to prevent similar incidents from occurring again. The company also emphasized that no customer information had been affected and there was no evidence of ongoing risk. We’ve all heard that before.
While Reviver’s mission to modernize driving is commendable, it is obviously important that the company protect its customers’ data. What makes this story interesting is the implications for public policy—digital plates, if they become common, or the new standard, could change the way police track vehicles. And this could enhance privacy.
Today, a favorite tracking tool of law enforcement is the automated license plate reader (ALPR). These devices scan, collect and sort license plate information from passing cars, enabling investigators to locate sought vehicles. The technology, however, has prompted concerns about privacy and potential police abuse.
The advantage of digital license plates is that they enable the tracking of specific vehicles, rather than the ALPRs’ broad, dragnet-style approach, which collects data on all vehicles within their scan range regardless of any suspicion that the vehicle was stolen, used in, or is occupied by someone implicated in a crime.
With the ability to target specific vehicles, digital license plates could provide law enforcement authorities with a quicker, less-costly and less-invasive way to locate both missing persons and crime suspects and victims. Since authorities would no longer have to invest in and maintain a network of ALPRs, they could redirect resources to other areas, making for more-efficient use of public funds.
This presupposes, of course, that digital license plates will become standard issue and that future consumer-data breaches won’t occur.
It also presupposes that U.S. courts will allow police to search digital-license records, possibly after obtaining a search warrant. The so-called third-party doctrine, an exception to the U.S. Constitution’s (Fourth Amendment) warrant requirement, holds that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding information voluntarily turned over to third parties, such as phone companies, internet service providers, financial institutions, and other businesses. Digital license plate providers would seem to fit the definition of a third party, but the courts will have the final word. And regardless of what the courts decide, a targeted search for a particular vehicle would provide the rest of us more privacy than the current ALPR dragnet approach provides.
While the vulnerability of digital license plates to hackers poses some risks to consumers, highlighting the need for effective policies and safeguards to protect privacy, the emergence of this new technology holds real promise for more-effective and less-intrusive vehicle tracking, both for law enforcement and the public.
We’ll see what the market says. If digital license plates remain a novelty, they won’t make much of a difference. If their use becomes widespread, or the new standard, the pros and cons will become obvious.