License-plate could broadcast your insurance data

A plan under study by Connecticut legislators would embed transmitters in license plates to monitor drivers in real time.

The idea upsets privacy advocates in a state whose plates bear the nickname "The Constitution State."

A Connecticut Senate committee recently approved a bill to explore putting radio frequency identification tags, known as RFIDs, in the state's license plates so cars can be tracked and tickets automatically generated for drivers with lapsed vehicle registration, emissions or insurance. A lobbyist for the program estimates the state would collect $29 million per year by fining uninsured drivers and other lawbreakers.

Former astronaut Paul Scully-Power, now representing the RFID industry, also envisions a future in which the same technology could be used to more easily identify those who break speed limits and run red lights.

Electromagnetic radio waves from an RFID tag give up data to an electronic reader. The data can include registration, insurance and emissions information, along with make, model and color of the vehicle.

One in 10 drivers uninsured

Like every other state except New Hampshire, Connecticut requires insurance or some other proof of financial responsibility. About 10 percent of Connecticut's 2.5 million licensed drivers were uninsured as of 2009, according to the Insurance Research Council, somewhat better than the national average of nearly 14 percent. The minimum fine for driving without insurance is $100.

Proponents say RFIDs would help increase the number of people caught violating the law. From 2005 to 2007, only 68,232 drivers were cited for not having insurance, and only a fraction of those actually paid the fine, according to data gathered by Scully-Power.

The Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) used to require license plates or windshields carry colored stickers that identified the vehicles as being registered or having had updated smog testing. But the DMV no longer has that requirement. RFID tags would instantly identify cars that weren't insured or emissions-tested and issue a citation automatically.

Of course, states already verify insurance information. Police can ask for proof of insurance during a traffic stop and write a ticket if the driver doesn't have it. In some states, where insurance companies report policy information to the DMV, officers can check plates of suspicious vehicles against a state database, or an automated scanner can look up every plate in a parking lot. (See "Do you look like you have car insurance?")

Your data, up for grabs

With a $200 RFID reader, a car with an RFID license plate could be scanned from about 10 feet away to get the driver's address, driving record or other information, says Robert Ellis Smith, a privacy expert and publisher of The Privacy Journal.

"A lot of people couldn't resist using it to keep track of people," Smith says of the tags that work like a barcode. Smith says he hasn't heard of any state tracking vehicles through license plates and worries it's a dangerous road.

"It would mark the first time that the identity of a vehicle or its owners could be known outside of the vehicle," he says.

Smith says Connecticut's plan has the potential to allow stalkers to track victims.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut also thinks the bill is a bad idea.

"Using RFID technology to track the movements of drivers and their cars is so incredibly invasive that we don't see how it could fail to violate the right to privacy," says Andrew Schneider, the organization's executive director, in a written statement. "The chips broadcast individually identifiable information to anyone with a receiver, and the potential for abuse, by the government or by private industry, is staggering."

"The loss of privacy for every driver for a few million dollars for the state is absurd," says Birny Birnbaum, executive director of the Center for Economic Justice.

OK, you've got insurance -- how about a pizza?

RFIDs came into broad use helping stores to keep track of their inventories.

Today, it's likely you're already carrying one.

They are used in passports, in corporate ID and access badges, in hospitals to track patient records and in libraries to ease self-service checkouts. The U.S. military has used them to verify identification of vehicles that approach its bases. Many cities use RFIDs for contactless payment of transit fares and highway tolls.

If all cars had RFID chips in their license plates, a business owner could scan the tags of customers in his parking lot and send ads or coupons to them, says privacy expert Smith.

"That would be a dream come true to many businesses and many marketers," he says. "That's the holy grail -- to get information about your customers."

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