Letter Re: License Plate Readers & OPSEC

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Sir:

Two of SurvivalBlog’s recent posts referenced altering or covering license plates to avoid identification by license plate readers. Coincidentally, the last two episodes of the reality show Hunted involved people being tracked by this technology. Altering your plate is clearly illegal. Apparently plastic covers are also illegal, at least in some jurisdictions. Electronic surveillance devices seem to be virtually everywhere these days. Do you have any advice for those of us who still believe in personal privacy but don’t want to break the law? About all I can think of is a good coat of mud or a trailer-hitch receiver cargo rack.

– R. in Maine

JWR Replies: You are correct that this is an emerging threat to our privacy. Sadly, it is just one part of the emerging Surveillance State.

There are a few options that I’ve mentioned to my consulting clients who have raised this issue:

  1. Registering your car in a “one plate” state—that is, in one of the 19 states that do not require a front license plate. (Called a “tag” in some regions.) That alone will eliminate half of the risk. So, for example if you park somewhere like at a gun show or at a politically rally where you don’t want your presence logged, you can back in to a parking spot up against a building or close behind another vehicle.
  2. You are correct about the legalities of obscuring license plates. But there are a few things that are legal or at least quasi-legal, including combinations of any of the following:
    1. A coat of spray lubricant, or rubbing on a very light coat of grease on the plate, to attract dust and road film.
    2. Buying a vanity license plate with short combination of letters and numbers that is easily confused by the naked eye or difficult to scan. One example of such lettering is: “0CQO” (Zero Charlie Quebec Oscar),
    3. Picking out a specialty license plate design with a very low contrast between the lettering and the background image. For example, on a recent consulting trip I noticed that in Montana if you buy a Grizzly Bear theme license plate, you end up with black lettering on top of a brown bear for the middle four digits, so the letters are quite difficult to read in anything but perfect lighting, and
    4. Adding punctuation to a vanity license plate, using little bits of black electrical tape. For example, changing a vanity plate that reads: “C M0RE” to instead read “C-M0RE”. That could easily be explained to a traffic officer who pulls your over. And unless he is having a very bad day, you wouldn’t get anything more than just a warning.
  3. If you live in a state where they are legal, invest in “Photo Shield” covers for your license plates. Some use a reflective surface, while the best ones use a Fresnel lens, to limit the viewing angle. They are available from a number of companies including PhantomPlate.com.
  4. Even if you don’t ever tow a trailer, buy a receiver hitch and the largest ball available, to partially block the view of your rear license plate.
  5. “Accidentally” allow the light bulb that illuminates your rear license plate to burn out. (Removing it and applying 120 Volts AC for a few seconds should do the trick.) Again, this probably won’t result in anything more than just a warning from a traffic cop, if it were noticed.
  6. If you live in a state where they are legal, buying novelty license plate FRAMES that obscure the State name on the plate, to add to your anonymity when traveling out of state. The more reflective, the better.
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