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California May Issue Digital License Plates, Privacy Groups Concerned

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – California may become the first state to issue digital license plates that can be registered electronically and record tolls. Privacy advocates are concerned the plates could become tracking devices for law enforcement.

Instead of a metal license plate, the digital plate would be a computer screen, slightly larger than an iPad. Registering the plates could be done wirelessly.

Arbaaz Sohl of Petaluma told KPIX 5 that he likes the idea. "It's a hassle to go to the DMV," he said, "because there's traffic and everything."

State Senate Bill 806 would create a three-year pilot program to test up to 160,000 cars with electronic license plates produced by San Francisco-based startup Smart Plate.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles said the plates would save $20 million a year, since renewal tags would not be issued.

Supporters of the measure said the digital plate would look similar to the current plate, but it would also be able to register Fastrak tolls and display Amber Alerts to other drivers.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital privacy group, opposes the idea saying it doesn't protect a driver's location and personal information.

"Law enforcement needs a warrant to be able to put a tracking device on your car. It's a possibility the way this program could be implemented, these smart plates could be that tracking device," said staff attorney Nate Cardozo.

A lobbyist for Smart Plate said the program is geared for big companies with large vehicle fleets and not the average driver, but the measure did not specify.

"I kind of like the idea," said Tom Stewart of Benicia. "I'm a big proponent of Fastrak and anything that can speed up the day."

But Amy Hopkins of Daly City doesn't like the pilot program at all. "The government will have personal information on people, and that's not right," she said.

Three years ago, a proposal would have allowed Smart Plate to produce digital plates with advertisements to generate state revenue, but the measure failed. Advertisements are not being considered in the current bill.

The bill has cleared the State Senate and is now being considered by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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