As It Happens

New digital licence plates in California raise privacy concerns

Digital licence plates are being rolled out in California — and with them, a slew of concerns about privacy, hacking, and the price tag.

The plates will be able to display messages, such as Amber Alerts, weather alerts and advertisements

A digital licence plate made by Reviver Auto comes at the steep cost of $699 US. ( Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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A new kind of licence plate is hitting the road in California.

Starting this month, the state is trying out digital licence plates, which can track cars and display messages.

According to Neville Boston, CEO and co-founder of Reviver Auto, the new plates will make it easier and faster for people who don't want to wait in line at the DMV to register their vehicles. Reviver Auto is the only company making and selling these plates.  

"You now have an opportunity to be able to do your registration for your vehicle over an app and then you can have it uploaded right in real time on your vehicle," said Boston, in an interview with As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner.

"You don't have to put stickers on your car anymore and you don't have to wait for it in the mail. So it helps us simplify that process."

Privacy concerns

According to the Sacramento Bee, the new plates use the same electronic ink technology found in Kindle eBook readers, along with a wireless communication system. Drivers who use the plates will be able to display messages on them, such as Amber Alerts, weather alerts and advertisements.

When asked if the plates would be distracting, Boston said the messages are meant to benefit people in the city and will only display when the vehicle is legally parked.

But despite creating a faster registration process for drivers, the plates have raised privacy concerns about whether police and private companies can track a driver's movements.

"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, an attorney for the non-profit organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, to the San Francisco Chronicle.

"It can reveal your associations, who you speak with, where you go to work, where you live."

But according to Boston, drivers can be assured that their information will be stored in an encrypted space and that users can turn their location data on and off.

"How we have it set up right now is that any communication that you do with the plate is like having an online bank access session. It's very secure. But on top of that, the data centre is completely owned 100 per cent by the user," he said.  

Boston said his company also takes extra care to not share a person's information to law enforcement agencies, the DMV or insurance companies.

"If there is a subpoena or something of that nature, then we would have to, I believe, comply," he said.

"But I think people would get more information off their cellphone than they would from our information because your cellphone goes with you everywhere you go."

'Tremendous traction to date'

The plates are currently being sold at some dealerships in California, and they will also be piloted in Arizona this month.

However, the plates come at a steep cost of $699 US, excluding the installation price. Drivers who choose the plate will also have to pay a monthly fee.

But since launching last week, Boston said the digital licence plates have had "tremendous traction to date."

Neville Boston is the CEO of Reviver Auto. His company is making digital licence plates that are being rolled out in California. (Reviver Auto/Photo by Martin Kimek)

The plates are currently being used on some of the city of Sacramento's fleet vehicles, and his company is in talks with larger ride sharing applications to roll out the plates.

Boston, who currently uses a digital licence plate, enjoys the reactions he receives when people see his car.

"I think the most popular plate in California is the retro plate that's dark brown with the yellow lettering. I think [this is] going to be even more popular than that," he said. 

Written by Samantha Lui. Interview with Neville Boston was produced by Donya Ziaee.