June 20, 2013
One Day, You’ll Have a Chip in Your Rear
Posted on Sep 12, 2010
By T.L. Caswell
Did you ever sense, for just a moment, that an unseen someone or something was watching you? Well, often the feeling is just a feeling, nothing more, but that doesn’t mean there never are eyes trained on you from a distance. In an era of rapidly expanding technology, government and others are finding new ways to surreptitiously observe traffic, and one day your own automobile license plate will probably become their accomplice by sending out a radio signal.
Civil libertarians worry that in coming years more and more so-called radio frequency identification (RFID) data will be gathered from highways and streets as Americans take trips or go about their daily business. What underlies the concern is the widespread technology that currently is following the movements of countless animals, humans and inanimate objects.
The uneasiness was fed more fuel this year by a controversy over California legislation calling for a feasibility study of “smart” license plates. Although the digital system cited in the legislation differs from RFID and wouldn’t be intended to track motorists, many Californians feared that a first use of electronics in auto plates would open the door to mandatory devices that would allow government agents to follow cars and trucks via signals transmitted from the vehicles. Public uncertainty surrounding the system and its capabilities helped drive the argument against it.
Senate Bill 1453, which would empower the California Department of Motor Vehicles to have the study done, hit a dead end in the Assembly Appropriations Committee in August, but nevertheless in the minds of privacy advocates it remains a bad omen. Even without the bill, the notion of high-tech plates is alive and thriving: It is being nurtured by the many police officers, elected officials and bureaucrats in California and elsewhere who are locked in a love affair with the potential of the technology.
If present trends are borne out, you will have a smart plate of some kind on your car in the next 10 years or so. Already, smart plates are in use abroad, and the U.S. federal government has disclosed its interest in the possibility of having such an apparatus on motorcycles as well as cars and trucks.
Thousands of print publications and websites had a good laugh, or a racking cry, over the now-moribund proposal, and in July the Los Angeles Times put on its brass knucks and proceeded to beat the stuffing out of the measure. The newspaper denounced it as a “low-brow” scheme to raise money by selling ads and declared “it would be ugly and cheapening to fill California’s streets and neighborhoods with millions of mini marketing ploys. California might as well change its official nickname to the Sellout State and its official motto from ‘Eureka’ to ‘This space for rent.’ ”
Among the Times’ allegations: The devices would be road hazards because they would distract drivers. Hackers could invade the wireless system and exhibit pornography or rogue messages. The system would theoretically open the way to tracking vehicles and perhaps taxing them on the basis of miles driven. Repugnant organizations like the Ku Klux Klan might have the legal right to advertise from the back of your car.
The author of SB 1453, state Sen. Curren D. Price Jr., who represents a diverse swath of the Los Angeles area, replied in the L.A. Times to the newspaper’s criticism, starting by quoting writer Victor Hugo “as saying that there is ‘nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.’ ” He countered the editorial on several points, factual and otherwise, and argued:
In effect he was saying: This is the future, people—get used to it.
The possibility of such a future leaves many Californians and other Americans upset even though they know Price’s bill will not advance this time around. They fear a day when voluntary, “opt-in” electronic displays on license plates will have evolved into mandatory requirements for digital ads on all vehicles or for RFID devices that would subject every driver to souped-up tracking.
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