Another Really Bad Idea

Monday’s Chron had a story documenting one of the worst ideas I’ve ever seen.

It’s a profile of a company called Reviver and their “rPlate” product, which, they say “modernizes and reinvents the license plate for the 21st century.”

What’s wrong with the license plate that it needs modernization and reinvention? There seem to be three major problems: renewing your auto registration is expensive and time-consuming, license plates are boring, and they can’t be monetized.

Let’s take those in order, shall we?

The rPlate could potentially store a credit card number and use it to renew the registration “at the push of a button”. Is registration really that much of a problem? How long does it take you? When I get the bill once a year, I pay it online, and when the new sticker shows up, I put them on the plate. I doubt it takes more than fifteen minutes of my time. Yeah, there’s also the time spent on getting the smog check, but automating the renewal process won’t change that.

But let’s say Reviver is correct, and those fifteen minutes are an insupportable burden. Letting the plate pay the bill and update it’s image of the sticker would, of course, require the plate to have some kind of a network connection via Wi-Fi or cellular. I presume Reviver is sufficiently security-conscious to put that button inside the car, not on the plate where anybody walking through a parking lot could push it. But really, does anyone think their security is good enough to keep your credit card information safe? We’ve already seen cameras, TVs, and light bulbs hijacked and used in DDOS attacks. How optimistic are you that your license plate wouldn’t be misused the same way?

And don’t forget that there would need to be a software update at the DMV to accept those automated registrations and send back the instruction to update the tag. Just what we all need: another avenue for attackers to break into the DMV’s database. Think for a moment about how much information the DMV has on you. It’s not just your vehicles, after all. Organ donor status. Voting registration. Medical information.

Plates are boring. Yeah, they are, but so what? If you don’t like the standard plate, support a worthy cause by getting a special design, or pay a little extra for a personalized plate. But that, in Reviver’s opinion, is so 20th century.

When your car isn’t moving, the rPlate can show “Amber alerts and weather warnings, as well as custom messages from the driver…along with images”. Why not? It’s got that Internet connection, so why not make use of it? I don’t know about you, but when I’m sitting at a red light, I really don’t want the drivers behind me and in the next lane over looking at my license plate; I want them watching the road.

And how much control can, or will, Reviver exercise over those custom messages? “Go [sports team]” is relatively harmless, but what about “Kill [political figure]”? Presumably they’d include a filter for offensive words, but who gets to decide what words are on that list? How many Internet filters block access to gay rights organizations and breast cancer survivors’ groups? And it’s much harder to filter images. I suspect the first hardcore porn pictures will show up within twelve hours of the plates going on sale.

There’s also the chance (somewhere between 99% and 100%) that someone will figure out how to hack the plates via that Internet connection to put their own pictures and messages on tens of thousands of plates. Think those ads people leave on your windshield are annoying? Wait until they start hijacking your license plate to hype their hair and nail salons, DJ performances, and political candidates.

But that Internet connection is really the heart of the whole plan. No matter how bad an idea the automated renewal and message display options may be, they’re not going away, because they’re the excuse to include that designed-in vulnerability. Why? Reviver is quite upfront that they plan to sell advertising.

I’m sure they have the loftiest of intentions to control the content of the ads to avoid offensive content, but even companies with long experience in advertising don’t always get that right.

I’m also sure that the states will appreciate their cut of the ad revenue–and the ability to use that Internet connection to track where your car has been. Who needs license plate cameras and red light cameras when your car will cheerfully offer a time-stamped report of every mile you drive?

And I’m quite sure that we’re not going to get a kickback of any of the ad money–we may even pay an annual subscription fee for the use of the plates (on top of the cost of registration; what was that about saving money?)–for the privilege of being a mobile billboard and being tracked far more precisely than ever before.

5 thoughts on “Another Really Bad Idea

  1. Let’s add to that: they’d be much easier to track. Good for locating stolen cars, bad for just about everything else.

    And showing something else when the car isn’t moving? What about the car that’s blocking my driveway, or when exchanging information after an accident?

    This has “bad idea” written all over it. Few benefits, many concerns.

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    • Yup. Under California law, the car has to be stationary for five seconds before the plate can show something other than the normal info, and I have the impression it’ll cycle back to that display periodically, but yeah, not what I’d call a great improvement in usability.

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    • I have philosophical qualms with the phrase “abuse of technology”. The hardware is, after all, doing exactly what it’s designed to do.

      But that aside, it’s definitely yet another indication that technology is making it entirely too easy to snoop.

      Screaming is good. Writing to your state representatives and explaining why you would like them to revisit the 2010 authorization of digital license plates with an eye towards security and privacy is better.

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  2. Pingback: YARBI | Koi Scribblings

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