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Electronic License Plates: Crime Preventer or Spy Tool?

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On: Fri, Jun 14, 2013 at 2:13PM | By: Teddy Field

Electronic License Plates: Crime Preventer or Spy Tool?

Originally, state governments were formed to look out for the interests of its citizens. A couple of centuries later, state governments are looking to their citizens for the money to fund their massive operating budgets. Tickets, fees, and taxes just aren't enough to feed these bureaucratic machines, so new ways have to be explored. Like electronic license plates.

Back in 1903, Massachusetts was the first state to issue license plates. Roadways were filling with automobiles as people started to move about. The horseless carriage was capable of taking people farther in a day than a horse could take them in three days. So Massachusetts devised a way to keep track of all those new-fangled cars.

By the 1920s, cars had become more affordable, and states were faced with building a network of car-friendly roads. They also had to manage all the traffic, all the accidents, and all the drivers who didn't follow the rules. States were spending a fortune to provide safe roads for their citizens, and vehicle registration fees were used to offset this rising cost. It's not much different today, except for the fact that most states are swimming in red ink, and many are looking for new revenue sources. Enter the electronic license plate.

First considered by Arizona in 2008, electronic license plates allow the state to immediately flash the vehicle's registration status, such as 'SUSPENDED' or 'UNINSURED'. These “E-tags” are made of a new 'electronic paper', which is powered by the car's vibrations, and a special solar film that covers the plate. Similar to the material used in a Kindle tablet, the electronic paper is supposed to be capable of displaying an image for 10 years, using no power. According to Compliance Innovations, their electronic license plates need power only when the image is changed. And that happens via a cell signal, sent to the plate by the DMV.

Arizona found that 200,000 (of an estimated 6.7 million) vehicles on their roads either were not registered or had expired tags. This was costing the state $25 million in lost revenue, and the electronic license plates would theoretically help the state collect that money by alerting police with big red letters on the E-tag. The tags could also help to recover stolen vehicles by flashing 'STOLEN'. Amber alerts could also be broadcast on the tags, and, in 2010, California even considered switching to electronic license plates so they could sell advertising to bolster the state's ballooning budget deficit.

South Carolina is the latest state to consider switching to the $100 electronic license plates. Proposed by local company Compliance Innovation, the digital tags are being pitched to residents as a way to lower insurance rates by removing throngs of uninsured drivers from the roads. The company wants to run a pilot program on state owned vehicles, but there are still some nagging issues... like the cost.

Since electronic license plates use a cell signal to get instructions, they can be used to track a vehicle's location. The president of Compliance Innovation assures South Carolinians that their vehicles can't be traced without multiple court orders and lots of red tape. But we all know that computer networks can be misused, and even hacked into by parties outside the DMV. So issuing an electronic license plate is essentially like requiring residents to place a tracking device on their vehicle.

Privacy concerns also linger over broadcasting a person's private affairs, like the status of their driver's license, or their insurance coverage. And, of course, you just know that people will figure out a way to reprogram the tags, allowing them to cheat the system in ways that they couldn't before. So, electronic license plates may turn into an expensive headache... that you'll be required to pay for. But then again, they might help recover some stolen cars and prevent a few uninsured accidents... who knows? California and Arizona don't seem to be in a rush to issue these pricey plates, and South Carolina hasn't signed on the dotted line either.

So what do you think: Are you in favor of electronic license plates, or do you think they're needlessly expensive/tracking devices?


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