Why Do We Always Blur License Plates On The Internet?

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Good news, ladies and gentlemen: Friday is here, and that means it's almost time to begin your weekend by sitting in bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic and screaming at other drivers, even though they can't hear you.

But before we get to that point, it's also time for Letters to Doug, a weekly Jalopnik column where I respond to one exciting letter from a reader and ignore approximately 40 others. And remember: you, too, can participate in Letters to Doug, by sending me an e-mail at Letters2Doug@gmail.com, or by tweeting me at @DougDeMuro.

This week's letter comes to us from Thomas, who resides in Denver, Colorado – my birthplace, and the current hometown of a lot of hipsters from California who want to smoke pot. Thomas writes:

Mr. Doug,

I'm not going to write your column for you (because I'm wholly incapable), but I will toss you what is inevitably a softball for an automobile aficionado and writer of your matchless intellect and wit...

When posting images of one's automobile to the Internet, why do we always blur out the license plate(s)? Everyone seems to do it, but I don't believe that anyone has ever provided a truly good justification for going through the trouble.

Thank you and good luck, we're all counting on you.


For those of you who aren't sure what Thomas means, allow me to explain. Practically every time you watch an automotive video online, you see a situation where the camera shows a license plate, either incidentally or directly. But it doesn't actually show a license plate. Instead, what happens is, it shows this blurry cloud over the license plate, and so it looks the license plate is behind that expensive frosted glass that rich people have on their showers.


It's becoming the same way in Craigslist ads. More and more, I've noticed that Craigslist sellers are obscuring their license plates in ads, either with a piece of paper, or a rag, or a towel, or — more recently — with their finger, held directly in front of the camera to block out the plate number.

The reason they do this, of course, is because people are very protective of numbers that identify us. All our lives, we're told not to give anyone our social security number, or our address, or our credit card numbers, or our phone number, or our birthday, or else they will STEAL OUR IDENTITY! And I don't want my identity stolen, dammit, because I fear the thief would drain my bank accounts, and learn all my passwords, and come on here and change my little yellow display picture.


So what we do is, we keep our identifying numbers VERY private. And I mean VERY private. You get the sense that some people out there are so worried about this sort of thing that they wouldn't show you their Costco membership card, for fear you might use their discount to buy lettuce.

But is there actually a worry here? If I get your plate number, can I actually do anything with it?


Of course, the answer here is no, you cannot, and it's all thanks to a guy named Jim Moran, whose Wikipedia page "Controversies" section is longer than my resume. So who exactly is this Jim guy? Some crazy freak who used a plate number to harm someone? Some deranged person who stalked a woman with a plate number?

No, he was a congressman from Virginia who passed a law that banned this sort of thing.


The law is called the "Driver's Privacy Protection Act," and it was signed on September 13, 1994, by President Bill Clinton, who later remarked that he wished he hadn't signed it because "I never would've hooked up with Monica if I knew she drove a Neon."

Anyway: the Driver's Privacy Protection Act, or DPPA as it was affectionately nicknamed by the Legislative Committee for Affectionate Nicknames, prohibits the disclosure of personal information gathered by motor vehicle departments. The result is that the most information a person with your plate number could possibly get is the make and model of your vehicle. Not your name, not your address, not your date of birth, not your social security number, not whether you had feathered hair in the '80s, not whether you reach for slices of bread at restaurants but then put them back when you find out it's an end piece, etc.


So basically you have nothing to worry about when a normal person sees your license plate number, unless of course they have some sort of access to DMV records. Fortunately, this access is limited to the most upstanding members of our community – cops, lawyers, process servers, DMV employees named Alice whose fake fingernails are the size of television remotes – and that means it's pretty hard to get.

So is it possible that the person you screamed out will cut you off and track you down? Technically yes. But then it's also possible that I will wake up in the morning after a full night's sleep, look down, and discover that I have become a refrigerator. This world is full of all sorts of crazy occurrences, ya know?


Now, if you're still worried about your plate number, allow me to offer one other nugget of information that may help you sleep a little better — just in case your finger doesn't quite cover it in all your Craigslist photos. And that nugget is: EVERYONE ALREADY SEES YOUR LICENSE PLATE NUMBER EVERY TIME YOU DRIVE DOWN THE STREET! Yes, folks, that's right: every time you drive your vehicle on a public road, every human with eyes can see your license plate number. And guess what? You're still alive, living your life, and nobody has figured out any of your passwords, even though you have an unprotected file on your Desktop that includes all of them.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I suggest you stop covering up your license plates when you post pictures or video, because by God it doesn't matter. And it's all thanks to good ol' Congressman Jim Moran, or – as he is better known by the Legislative Committee for Affectionate Nicknames – Big Jimmy Mo Mo.


@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.