Somebody had to do it. California’s actually been looking at it for several years now: a “smart,” computerized license plate that would be trackable and able to communicate with the DMV. The concept being pushed by San Francisco-based Smart Plate Mobile involves a plate with a 6-by-12-inch computer screen that displays a California logo and plate number.
Ostensibly, the crying need for this device comes from the terrible burden suffered by large companies that reportedly have to send employees off to DMV offices day after day to renew tags. The infotag could be chatted with by the DMV and renewed automatically, saving the harried business owner thousands and thousands and thousands of wasted person-hours.
This sounds like a crock to me; I haven’t had to renew a tag for a commercial vehicle in California, but I’ve been renewing the tag on my private vehicle here for 10 years now, and the DMV and I have never personally interfaced on the matter. I renew online, which takes about five minutes. I just verified at the California DMV website that online renewal is available for commercial vehicles, as is the express renewal service “CarTagz,” with the latter being available for trailer tags in fleet and bulk orders only. So if you run a lot of trailers around California in your business, or you just have a limousine service or a lot of step vans, the DMV website has got you covered.
In 2010, the state legislature contemplated the ingenious idea of allowing rolling advertisements on these infotags whenever the vehicle comes to a stop for more than 5 seconds. Aspiring infotag advertisers would pay the state for the privilege of putting an ad down where no one is looking anyway (unless he’s driving out in the sticks on one of the interstates, playing the License Plate Game with the kids. And who does that anymore? The kids are all hunched over their handheld devices now, or absorbed in whatever’s on the mini-TV screen).
Presumably, the vehicle owner would have to pay the state to advertise on his own plate. The opportunities here seem intriguing, but hazards for the politically sensitive would abound as well. You just know that the first thing an owner would pay to advertise on his California license plate would be that “It’s a child, not a ‘choice,’” or “Marriage is between one man and one woman.” Lawsuit!
At any rate, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy-advocacy group, is warning the Golden State about this proposal.
[Nate] Cardozo of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said the technology could lead to police monitoring, particularly in light of a Supreme Court ruling last year that said law enforcement needed a search warrant to place a tracking device on a vehicle.
“If the technology is already on the car, then the government wouldn’t need a warrant to place the device because it’s already there,” Cardozo said.
He certainly has a point. It seems to me that if the problem is that it takes too many human-person-hours to renew a vehicle tag, and if the fix is for the tag to be renewed by an automated process, that could be accomplished without putting a tracking device on the vehicle.
The long pole in the renewal tent is, after all, the processing of the renewal request. That’s where the DMV has to put in a little sweat. I can attest that once the new annual sticker has arrived each year, it takes me less than a minute to affix it to my plate. A business that has a lot of vehicles employs, perforce, a lot of drivers, who I’m thinking really can spare that 30 seconds a year to put a new sticker on a plate. The people are doing OK out here. The renewal process can be automated satisfactorily, from the DMV’s perspective, without tracking the locations of our private vehicles.
Of course, California promises that “there would be security controls in place to protect [drivers’] information.” But that’s not the right focus for this debate. The correct question for the state is why it needs the information in the first place. One thing the Obama administration’s eruption across our cosmos has been clarifying for us is that our “information” is not safe with government, at any level. (See the Obama campaign’s assault on the sealed, divorce-related records of both of his major opponents in the 2004 Senate run, as well as the administration’s apparent illegal knowledge of what was in Koch Industries’ tax returns. If states e-tracked the location of private vehicles, is there any doubt that unscrupulous office-seekers would go after their opponents’ records?)
I’m satisfied to declare categorically that the state of California has no need, for any general purpose, to track where my vehicle or yours is physically located. If the state thinks it needs to track my vehicle because of something it suspects about me, it can get a warrant, adhering to due process of law.
Naturally, digital infotags will spawn a new e-tampering industry. It’s not just politicians who will want to track other people’s vehicles. Someone will figure out how to do it by hacking into the system, and will sell his services. Other folks will want to send false data about their vehicles, either to hide their activities or just because they prefer privacy. Entrepreneurs will cater to them as well.
The guy who wants to send false data about someone else’s vehicle is more likely to have to do his own dirty work – but, of course, he’ll exist. Couple these urges with the sizable illegal population of California, and the fun will never end.
Ultimately, however, it is on subjects like these that we demonstrate our priorities as free men and women, and our commitment to limiting government and privileging liberty. No argument about which things would be easier for the state to do, if we had digital infotags, trumps the principle that the state has no prior need to know where our vehicles are. When the principle in question is privacy, the state is always properly the importunate party in the case – and the appropriate standard of proof should be virtually impossible to meet.