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Digital License Plates Considered Harmful

October 2nd, 2023

I have now seen two digital license plates in my town. I thought it was just a stupid novelty, but today I decided to do a little more research. It's obvious there's no upside, but there's more downside than I thought. I shouldn't be surprised.

For those who don't live in California, Arizona, Michigan, or Texas, you might not have even heard that they're doing this. Well you better believe they are, because absolutely nothing can be left alone in the year 202X.

The main company making these plates is called "Reviver". For only 599 American dollars, you can get either a battery powered or a hard-wired "RPlate" that will display your license plate number on its e-ink display. For an additional $6.25 per month, you can get access to all the "connected features", because of course it connects to the Internet and of course there's a subscription.

If you decided your car didn't spy on you enough, you can replace your stamped aluminum license plate (a system that has worked flawlessly for over a century) with a computer completely outside your control that has perpetual, unfettered access to the Internet using the cellular networks.[1]

But wait! If you download the app and pay for the subscription, you get access to all kinds of great features, including the ability to switch between dark and light mode, "expressing yourself" with a custom message (a glorified bumper sticker), in-app registration renewal, "theft deterrence," and "vehicle recovery support". The "features" don't stop there, either. From the product page, emphasis mine:

As the license plate of the future, RPlate will just keep getting better with optimizations and updated integrations for parking systems, digital wallets, vehicle safety recall, tolling systems, as well as support for additional languages and DMV services.

In other words, it's yet another device tracking your car's location, but this one is kind enough to give you that information if you pay monthly. It will also save you about 5 minutes per year because you can renew your registration in the app (for a premium, I'm sure) and you don't have to put the new sticker on because it will update it automatically.

Curiously, the product page says the registration year will not update on your $600 digital license plate without an active subscription. Since, I believe, the subscription is billed yearly, it's a requirement to continue driving your car legally because the license plate must show the current tag. Of course, you could also just go back to metal plates and registration stickers, but what would your friends think?

Reviver would also like you to think that thieves would be deterred from stealing a car owned by somebody with both the disposable income and the lack of intelligence required to own such a device. Finally, they want to integrate it in the future with all kinds of things your license plate doesn't need to be involved in, including your finances.

Let's take a look at the privacy policy, shall we? Reviver "can" collect the following information. These list items are copied from the privacy policy and some are lightly edited for brevity.

They also collect the following, during "delivery or receipt of content or information to your products", whatever that means. To me, it sounds like legal mumbo jumbo that really means they can collect it whenever they want.[2] This list is copied verbatim from the privacy policy.

This information is used for many things, notably including the following. These list items are copied verbatim.

They can use and share any "information that does not personally identify you", including anonymized data, for any purpose including advertising. Third parties may also be allowed to "place and read their own cookies, pixel tags, Local Shared Objects, and similar technologies to collect information through the Services". If you are aware of the state of consumer technology, nothing in that privacy policy should surprise you. Chances are, you've agreed to worse just by owning or, in some cases, merely riding in a new car.

I think this product started with the question "How can we put an Internet-connected computer in people's cars?" and everything else was an afterthought. I'd say this is a solution looking for a problem, but it's not about the solution. It's about the data collection, and the yearly subscription fees are a nice bonus. This whole thing is deeply unfortunate, but I wouldn't expect more from the people falling for it or our state legislators who have allowed these devices to be used in the first place.

Data collection aside, there are some other concerns a reasonable person might have with RPlates. These devices have only been available to the general public for a year and there's already been a major security vulnerability. Researchers were able to gain "super administrative access"[3] to Reviver's system, allowing them to, among other things, track the location of any plate, change the slogan at the bottom of any plate, mark any vehicle as stolen (alerting the authorities), and access all the personal information of any Reviver user.

Regular old metal license plates have none of these problems, of course. However, we all know, once enough people fall for it and they become accepted, digital license plates will become mandatory. It's just the way it goes.

  1. ^ It uses LTE, which will eventually be eliminated just like all the others. I wonder what happens to your $600 license plate then...
  2. ^ It's also a great way to bury the juicy stuff in another list so anyone skimming the privacy policy might miss it.
  3. ^ While you're scrolling down to see what they did to Reviver, check out what they did to Hyundai. Whatever you do, don't buy a new car!

Update 2023-10-02: It turns out, they already hacked it.