Foes fault more study of license plate IDs in Virginia

Civil liberties and privacy advocates in Virginia are incensed over a state study’s recommendation to continue research on technology that tracks the specific location of state-issued license plates — a move proponents say would help police and toll operators more readily identify potential scofflaws.

The recently released report from the Department of Motor Vehicles includes suggestions to make license plates more detectable by adding bar codes and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to them and using the state’s safety-inspection program to identify illegible plates.

At the behest of the Virginia General Assembly, the state DMV and state police convened a working group of more than 35 stakeholders earlier this year that crafted the 76-page report.

Using RFID or bar codes on license plates would help law enforcement and toll operators identify plates that aren’t readable because of their color or design, for example. But for either to be successful, they would have to be adopted nationwide, the report said.

Citing an association with Orwellian “Big Brother” government and the absence of the necessary IT infrastructure and information about implementation costs, the group could not recommend “immediate adoption” of such a system, but the report said the practice warranted further study.

But Claire Gastanaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, thought the matter should be dropped.

“We would have preferred they concluded, ‘It’s not worthy of further study,’” she said. “The privacy implications are too great.”

Virginia had considered becoming the first state to insert such tags into driver’s licenses in 2004, which was met with similarly strong opposition from the ACLU.

The report said concerns could be alleviated by limiting the information contained in a bar code or RFID tag to simply the license-plate number and type.

Delegate Joe T. May, Loudoun Republican and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, requested the study along with his Senate counterpart, Sen. Stephen D. Newman, Bedford Republican. Mr. May said part of the reason for his request was the extensive use of tolling in the state. Leveraging technology could help unclog stalled traffic and lead to fewer accidents in the future if all cars are passing through tolling areas at highway speed.

“We’re not oblivious to the privacy-rights people,” he said. “We’re gradually learning how to write legislation so that it protects private information. Virginia’s one of those states where we don’t rush into things. We’re going to make certain it’s right. But, definitely, automated reading of license plates is going to have to be [developed] if we’re going to continue with the tolling activity that’s already in existence.”

But John W. Whitehead, president of civil liberties advocacy organization the Rutherford Institute, said encroaching technology is a slippery slope. He pointed out that even if information scanned is limited to the license-plate type and number, an alcoholic driving to a support group meeting or a person driving to see a psychiatrist — or anyone, for that matter — could have someone watching him.

“They’re going to know wherever you go,” Mr. Whitehead said. “You’ll have no privacy. If they can track your car wherever it’s at — I mean, who in the world would want that?”

The Rutherford Institute is part of the defense team of Andrea Hernandez, a high school sophomore in Texas who refused to wear a student ID embedded with a chip on the grounds that it violates her religious beliefs, likening it to “the mark of the beast.” A hearing in federal court is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday CST.

The DMV study also recommends using the state’s vehicle-safety inspection program to identify license plates that cannot easily be read by law enforcement and tollbooth cameras — an idea that the Virginia State Police did not support.

“The inspection of license plates for appearance is speculative and falls well outside the scope of the inspection program,” Virginia State Police Superintendent Col. Steve Flaherty wrote in a position letter.

Ms. Gastanaga agreed.

“Safety inspections are about making sure a vehicle’s safe,” she said. “The local gas station guy isn’t law enforcement. Once you start mixing up what the inspection station is for, you have people avoiding it.”

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