City staff were the first to try out the new city of Berkeley “dealer plates” to protect their privacy. Photo: Citizen reporter

Editor’s note: In case it didn’t become obvious, this is an April Fools’ story!

Original story: A subcommittee of the Berkeley Commission on Civic Privacy has recommended that the practice of displaying easily readable license plates should be discouraged on Berkeley city streets.

“We need to re-evaluate how we display and archive information that can be used to track personal movements that should remain private,” Kay Serra, the subcommittee chair, stated in a public workshop conducted via zoom on Wednesday evening.

Serra said that the subcommittee had concluded that automated license plate readers constitute a serious violation of the right to privacy.

“Traditional license plates,” Serra explained, “are problematic for exactly the same reasons: They are too big and can be easily read by anyone. We are entitled to privacy in our comings and goings, and big numbers on a license plate are unacceptable in a modern society in which there is an expectation of privacy on the road.”

Amelia Raite, representing the Mayor’s Equity Task Force, asked for clarification: “We understand the objection to automated license plate readers, red light cams and speed cams. Even though we have mixed feelings about the cams, because they are totally colorblind. But is it wise to cover up our plain old license plates?”

“Absolutely,” Serra responded. “There’s really no difference. If you put a large identifying number out in public, backed by a searchable database, personal privacy is compromised. There’s really no difference whether it’s automatically recorded or read and written down by a human.”

“License plate data, especially when available in NRT, or near-real-time, create a large amount of additional work load and expense for our department and a burden for police.” — Rick Shaw

“I agree completely,” added Rick Shaw from the city’s transportation department, speaking with sufficient volume for Zoom to move the highlight to their box on the screen. “For the last eight months we’ve been working with a consulting firm that ran a cost/benefit simulation to determine the impacts of implementing a highly granular network of license plate readers, red light and speed cams across the city,” he said. “The result was instructive: License plate data, especially when available in NRT, or near-real-time, create a large amount of additional work load and expense for our department and a burden for police.”

Asked for a more details about the consultant’s report, Shaw explained that every time someone calls in a plate number of a supposedly bad driver or a car that might be associated with a crime or suspicious activity, city staff then has to check the archive of recorded instances of that plate on Berkeley streets, track down the registered owner, cross-reference to the red-light cams and speed cams, and in a high percentage of simulated cases, other violations or warrants are found. These are often outstanding warrants for a parole violation or similar, or “other little things that really should have gone undetected,” according to Shaw.

“It all means more public expense that could have been avoided. It’s a major financial burden for the city. The simulation project was an expensive contract, even by city standards, but in the long run it will save us a lot of money.”

“Does this mean you are recommending against all license plate readers in Berkeley?” asked Berndt Bridges, a member of the Committee on Homelessness.

This is what the new City of Berkeley dealer plates will look like. Credit: Courtesy

“We need to ban those installed and operated by the city or any other public agency,” subcommittee chair Serra answered.

“What about private plate readers, on private property or in the dash-cams in peoples’ own cars?” Bridges asked.

“It’s the same logic as with any surveillance camera,” answered Lou Pole, another subcommittee member. “City policy does not allow surveillance cameras in public places, with very few exceptions. But we encourage citizens to install them on private property, even if aimed at public space.”

“Um, what ‘logic’ is that?” typed one of the public participants on the chat stream.

“We advocate a similar private-public policy for license plate readers,” subcommittee member Eileen Wright clarified with more text in the chatbox. “No data should be collected by the city or by police, or by any other public agency. But if someone wants to install a license plate reader on their own car, that is encouraged. We don’t want to regulate the free market for information obtained privately.”

“Easy-to-read license plates also make life difficult for the 200 RV residents who park on city streets in Berkeley,” added Fern Barr, a member of the Commission on Affordable Residential Vehicle Resources. “Without license plate tracking, and without the constant threat of harassment, all the RV nomads will be more likely to integrate into Berkeley’s diverse and vibrant community of the un-housed.”

Plates could be printed out from the city’s website, but the water-resistant recycled free-range hybrid paper-plastic and fair-trade ink used to produce the City-supplied plates are preferable.

Rick Shaw explained how the implementation would work: the new city of Berkeley “dealer plates” would be available at no charge from the Transportation Department office and other locations. They could also be printed out directly from the city’s website, but the water-resistant recycled free-range hybrid paper-plastic and fair-trade ink used to produce the city-supplied plates are preferable. 

There was one voice in opposition to the plan.

“The whole point of a license plate,” argued public workshop participant Roxanne Scholes when the workshop finally got around to allowing public comments, “is for the identity of the car and driver to be world-readable. Cars are dangerous and require training and skill to operate. That’s why we have drivers licenses and vehicle identification. It’s for accountability. That’s why license plates are deliberately designed to be visible and trackable to both law enforcement and to the public at large. The concept of privacy on the road is diametrically opposed to public safety.”

“That made sense a hundred years ago,” countered Helena Handbasket, the next person with a digital hand raised in the zoom meeting. “But privacy is now a cultural priority. In today’s world, driving is a human right.”

The Zoom screen for the joint subcommittee workshop. It’s not surprising that members of the Commission on Civic Privacy generally do not show their own faces during zoom meetings. Credit: Courtesy

Ellis Dee, in another public comment, had other reasons to support the new policy: “Imagine if a certain divorce lawyer got a hold of my local travel history,” he said. “I’d be toast!”

Jim Shorts had a more specific story along the same lines: “My ex-wife’s attorney took a photo of my car parked all morning in front of my favorite sports bar during my weekend with the kids. Then they caught me that afternoon turning into the race track parking lot with the license plate clearly readable. I nearly lost custody on alternate weekends, all because of those blatant violations of my right to privacy, and I think we’d all be better off without license plates.”

With no more comments in opposition, the resolution to send the recommendation to the Council passed unanimously. But the last comment typed on the chat stream, which was probably not read by any of the subcommittee members or city staff as they left the meeting, noted that modern cars are constantly sending location and performance data back to the manufacturer’s service networks, easily retrievable by any middle school hacker, rendering the discussion moot and the new policy of little actual significance.