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Experts Raise Privacy, Hacking Concerns as California Tests Digital License Plates

The plates will generate more data than the average car, which could be useful for a number of purposes. But it also creates one more trove of information to protect.

(TNS) – At a glance, they look like a sleeker version of the traditional California license plate: 6-by-12 inches with a sequence of letters and numbers printed in a blocky font.

But the new digital screens that will be appearing on cars throughout the state next month are far removed from the typical metal placards.

“Think about it like this: The difference between a flip phone and a smartphone is vast,” said Neville Boston, co-founder and CEO of Reviver Auto, the Foster City, Calif., company that makes the Rplates.

The plates, he says, are the auto industry’s answer to smartphone technology.

Smooth and reflective, the tablets display a license plate number when the car is moving and become a customized billboard when it’s parked. The devices could be used to automatically pay for parking and bridge tolls, and track a vehicle if it’s stolen. They could also eliminate the need for registration stickers.

In short, they seem perfectly tailored for a culture that’s obsessed with convenience.

The Rplates debuted this month on cars in Sacramento, including the city’s new electric fleet of 24 Chevrolet Bolts. In June, they’ll be sold at dealerships in California and Arizona. From there, Reviver’s plates will be made available in Nevada, Maryland and Pennsylvania before going overseas. Boston just signed a letter to test the gadgets in Dubai.

Some auto industry experts predict that these devices will become ubiquitous in the coming years. And that’s brought a new set of concerns about hacking, privacy and cost — $699 to purchase plus a monthly service fee could put Rplates out of reach for most drivers.

“It’s only the rich people in Silicon Valley who would be egotistical enough to want something like this,” said Vivek Wadhwa, a distinguished fellow at Harvard University Law School who researches the dark side of technology. He notes that every task the digital plates perform can already be accomplished by cheaper objects.

Others raise concerns about privacy.

San Francisco’s nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation — a group that promotes civil liberties in the digital world — says the devices will turn individual cars into a “honeypot of data,” recording the drivers’ trips to the grocery store, or to a protest, or to an abortion clinic.

“Your locational history has the potential to reveal a lot more than ... where you happen to be at a particular moment in time,” said Stephanie Lacambra, a criminal defense attorney for the foundation. “It can reveal your associations, who you speak with, where you go to work, where you live.”

Still others see the digital plates as long overdue.

“There are definitely some problems that need to be taken care of, but this is a technology that’s needed,” said Ashraf Gaffar, an assistant professor of engineering at Arizona State University who specializes in artificial intelligence. He predicts the plates will soon be widely adopted, and that the price will plunge significantly once they are mass-produced.

The idea for digital plates originated five years ago, when Gov. Jerry Brown approved legislation for a program that allowed the Department of Motor Vehicles to seek alternatives to traditional car registration, with its stickers and paper cards.

The DMV opened the program to bids from digital plate manufacturers, and Reviver Auto was the lone bidder. The company initially set out to create Rplates to automatically update vehicle registration, but over time, the engineers expanded their uses.

“They’ve broadened out,” said Boston.

In addition to having the potential to supplant FasTrak bridge toll devices, automatically connect to parking meters and run personalized messages, businesses could use them to advertise. Proud parents could use them to brag about an honor student, making bumper stickers a thing of the past. Cities could use them to track mileage on zero-emission vehicles and apply for low-carbon fuel standard credits from the state.

That’s worked in Sacramento, where each of the city’s Chevrolet Bolts has an Rplate.

“We know how far they travel and how much electricity they use,” said city fleet manager Mark Stevens, noting that the mileage data helps with preventive maintenance on the cars.

As for privacy concerns, Boston said the company has a robust policy to address them. He stressed that users can turn their location data on or off at any time, and that the company never shares that information with the DMV, law enforcement or third parties.

But those assurances weren’t enough to convince Lacambra.

“It’s still not clear where all this information is going, how long it’s stored or who has access to it,” she said.

To Gaffar, the bigger concern is hacking. Since Rplates connect to the Internet wirelessly, they open the door for intruders to alter their numbers or put in fake messages.

Reviver addresses that danger on its website, which details the Rplates’ security features. It says the company stores data in an encrypted cloud, using the same standards that apply to online banking.

Fears aside, Gaffar is enthusiastic about adding software to a sheet of metal.

“We can’t live with aluminum plates any longer,” he said.

©2018 The San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.