RFID License Plates: Good Idea or Disaster Waiting to Happen?

RFID License Plates: Good Idea or Disaster Waiting to Happen?

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) has proved quite useful to law enforcement over the years. RFID systems can be used to track police assets, control inventory in evidence rooms, locate patrol cars on the street, and more. But can the technology be taken too far? Can law enforcement turn to RFID for purposes that are potentially more harmful than productive?

To answer that question, we turn to the Philippines where RFID-enabled license plates are now the norm. The Philippines Ministry of Transport announced plans to begin producing RFID-enabled plates in 2018. Their original plan called for deploying upwards of 5.5 million of the plates.

Modifying Technology from Germany

It should be noted that the technology enabling the new license plates is not native to the Philippines. Rather, it is ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID technology developed by a German company. In its early days, the technology was produced as a window sticker affixed to a car’s windshield. Those stickers have since been replaced with aluminum license plates embedded with RFID chips.

In the case of the Philippines, the RFID license plates also include QR code stickers. The stickers add some extra capabilities that were not possible with the RFID chips alone. They allow police officers to pull up records on a particular vehicle using a hand-held device. This allows them to do what they do without having to immediately contact dispatch.

As for the RFID chips, they contain a ton of valuable information including the name of a car’s registered owner, his or her address, the vehicle identification number (VIN), the registered plate number, and more. Retrieving this information can tell a police officer a lot about the car in question and the driver behind the wheel.

Tracking Cars around Town

It is easy to see how RFID chips and QR codes can help police do their jobs more efficiently. But the concern here is one of police overreach. For example, it is theoretically possible to take advantage of the RFID license plate to track a car as it moves around town. All you need are a bunch of receivers capable of picking up RFID signals as cars pass by.

As crazy as this sounds, the technology already exists. Rock West Solutions, a California company that provides RFID technologies for law enforcement, says it’s actually old technology. It has been around for decades. Not only that, it has proven itself more than reliable.

If you have visited Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida within the last couple of years, you are likely familiar with their wrist bands. These are RFID-enabled wrist bands that serve as a guest’s hotel room key, park ticket, and payment method (when linked with a credit or debit card). Guess what? The bands also make it possible for Disney to track guests as they travel around their sprawling property.

A guest might get a smartphone notification telling her that a restaurant is nearby to her current location within the Magic Kingdom, for example. It is because she is being tracked. Her wrist band has told the Disney system exactly where she is in relation to said restaurant.

RFID-enabled license plates seem like a good idea on the surface. But are they a disaster waiting to happen? No one really knows. They seem to be working just fine in the Philippines. Here in the U.S., our legal system is different. Deploying the license plates here could lead to all sorts of questions over privacy, unreasonable search and seizure, and so forth. Perhaps those questions will have to be answered one day.

Bonnie Baldwin