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Digital plates: Big Brother partners with Madison Avenue
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Digital license plates could become government’s next Big Brother move.
State Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, is pushing a  measure to have the Department of Motor Vehicles conduct  a pilot digital vehicle license plate program involving 160,000 vehicles.
The idea is to reduce costs by allowing the DMV to save upwards of $20 million a year by not mailing plate renewal tags. Instead, “new” tags would be uploaded electronically once payment is received. The system would also have the capability of flashing up the word “expired” if a vehicle owner hasn’t paid their tags. It could also broadcast Amber Alerts.
Not only would the government be able to track your vehicle without a search warrant to effectively circumvent a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year, but it also opens the door to use your license plate as a vehicle for commercial advertisement.
While Hueso’s bill excludes mention of advertising, it wasn’t the case with two other versions pursued by former State Sen. Curren Price since 2010. Price noted such technology would have the ability to flash an electronic advertisement up every four seconds on a license plate. He pushed digital pates as a way to address the state’s perennial revenue shortfall.
Passage of Hueso’s bill opens the door for government tracking of your movements by vehicle as well as using your vehicle to advertise products that you are philosophically or adamantly opposed to.
It’s the perfect combo — Big Brother joins Madison Avenue.
Then there are issues from hacking license plates to altering numbers for criminal or vandalism purposes. Currently, a criminal would have to physically remove and switch plates. That usually involved two vehicles. A digital system would lighten their workload requiring them only to monkey with the vehicle they are stealing.
Currently, hackers only have websites, electronically bank accounts, and e-mails to sabotage for fun and profit. The California Legislature could add your license plate. Imagine some prankster altering your plates to either a different number or even an obscene word. Now think of the fun of being pulled over at gunpoint by law enforcement officers who have reason to believe you are driving a stolen vehicle because some hacker changed your plate number.
Nothing against new technology, but it has to have a net public good and not create even more opportunities for distracted driving by having four-second electronic commercials flash up on your license plates.
Now here’s a thought: Why not use technology to make the roads safer and make sure all of us comply with basic driving requirements?
Sacramento could require vehicle manufacturers to start producing cars that require you to slide a magnetic strip on your driver’s license and have your thumb print read before the vehicle can be started.
If your license is revoked or suspended, the vehicle won’t start. As an added bonus if you have outstanding arrest warrants for felonies the police will know exactly where you are at. While such a system would still give the government the ability to track your vehicle movements, it zeroes in on the fact driving is a privilege and not a right.
Given the thumb print and driver’s license with magnetic strip combo is highly individualized, those who are unlicensed or have their license suspended for reckless driving won’t be able to get behind the wheel of a vehicle and drive. That in turn makes the roads safer for law-abiding drivers.
It also could be designed so that any attempt to bypass the driver’s license scanner could alert police that the vehicle is in the process of being stolen. As such, the system could greatly reduce vehicle theft. 
The DMV could also tie it into an electronic insurance verification system to make sure the driver has basic insurance as required by law. If not, the car doesn’t start.
Of course, there is no money in it for Sacramento which means they can’t generate more money to spend. But isn’t government suppose to be about implementing and enforcing rules for the common good in terms of how we interact with each other in public settings and not merely pursue innovative ways of making more money?
Implementing such a system would take years but eventually almost every car on the road would have the system installed by virtue of the useful lives of vehicles ending.
It would sacrifice privacy based on the ability to track your vehicle movement but on the flip side it actually increases safety, reduces theft, enforces existing laws, and protects us all against the burden caused by unlicensed drivers.
In the overall scheme of things you are sacrificing some privacy but gaining measurable improvements in safety and the protection of your property. And you wouldn’t have to turn your car into a mobile electronic billboard that has the ability to distract drivers behind you and lead to an accident.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 249-3519.