If you're reading this now, there's great chance that you spend far too many of your waking hours looking at pictures of cars online. Which means you've probably noticed that many of those images have their license tags obscured in some way. Being the inquisitive (likely) mammal that you are, you've probably wondered why the license plate is obscured, and if it's actually a good idea.
The general thinking behind pixellating or blurring or covering the license plates is based on the idea that with your license plate number, more information can be revealed about the car's owner, without his or her consent. The argument against obscuring the tags is that the tags are already on open, public view. Why should it matter if they're in a picture, when they're normally not hidden, anyway?
In the interest of full disclosure, I'll reveal my thoughts coming into this. I was firmly in the who-cares-they're-already-on-display camp. To such a degree that I have a pair of Vans with my Beetle's license plate number embroidered on the back. Also, it helps that I'm so irritating that I'm almost kidnap-proof, even if someone could find out where I lived from my car's tags. But, I do have a wife and son far less annoying than myself, so I better get to the bottom of this.
A simple Google search reveals plenty of sites that offer ways to find out information based on license plate numbers. Hell, even our Gawk-bro site LifeHacker did an article on this very subject.
But that's the internet— I wanted the advice of someone who's job it is to actually know what's what with this stuff, and, ideally, have a uniform. So I called Officer Mosqueda of the California Highway Patrol and asked him, flat out, what information can people get from a license plate, and, as a CHP officer, would you suggest obscuring the plate?
The truth is you can find out a lot from someone's license tags. Officer Mosqueda said that there are both legal and illegal ways to find a person's name, address, the registration and fee history of the car, and more. All this information can be made available to anyone, either through the DMV or through paid services, many of which are online.
For example, in California, to go through the DMV, one would fill out an INF 70 form, which allows people to request information on a given license plate number. The form does list a set of permissible uses, such as driver safety, theft, hiring commercial drivers, etc. but if someone's the sort of perv that wants a person's license information so they can masturbate outside their bedroom window, I don't think they'd have much issue lying on the form.
This method is still an improvement over how it used to be. Prior to 1994, it was easier to get home addresses from DMV records, and this was the method by which the man who murdered Rebecca Schaeffer, an actress from the 90s television show My Sister Sam, got her home address and related information. This murder led to the creation of the Drivers' Privacy Protection Act of 1994.
Private, paid services don't even care if you're a creepy murderer or not— they just take your money and send you the information. Now, this information isn't your blood type and a list of your deepest, most secretest fears, but the possibility to get your address can be worrying.
As for the argument that your plate is already visible to anyone walking by your car, that's certainly true. It's just that the internet can so vastly expand the number of people able to see your license plate that it may become an issue. Still, as Officer Mosqueda told me with a certain degree of poetry, "You can't blur out real life." Sage words, Officer.
Officer Mosqueda's final advice? You may as well obscure your license plate, just to be safe. His attitude was that while it's not likely the information would be found and misused, it could happen.
So, I'm proposing a couple of little rules that I plan to live by, and will suggest that these be made Jalopnik policy:
• If you take a picture of a car that is not yours, and you have not made any arrangements with the owner, then it is the photographer's responsibility to obscure the plates.
• If you are taking a picture of your own car, or are placing your car in a situation or location where it can be reasonably expected that it will be photographed (at a car show, on the set of a film shoot, etc.) then it is the owner's responsibility to obscure the license plates if desired, by physical means or electronic in the case of an owner-created photo.
Oh, and if the license plate in question is a really funny or ironic personalized plate, or an inadvertently dirty one, I reserve the right to ignore all these good rules. Because a penis joke on a license plate or something trumps all laws.
How's that sound? Oh, and remember: "You can't blur out real life."