General Motors wants to make it easier for Chinese customers to curse out the moron who cut them off or get the digits of the attractive driver one car over at the stoplight. So it’s developed an app called DiDi Plate that lets Android users text the owner of a car by simply scanning its license plate.
John Du, GM China’s research and development director, demonstrated the app at the Telematics Detroit conference earlier this month, according to Computerworld. It’s a prototype app, but Du said GM is looking to have the technology added to its in-car infotainment system.
Du didn’t explain how the app links a license plate to a phone number, what happens if the person behind the wheel doesn’t own the car, or how GM will reconcile the fact that most people probably don’t want text messages from strangers on the street, for whatever reason.
Du offered two examples of how DiDi Plate might be used: 1) A male driver asks a female driver on a date (she accepts); 2) a driver’s car is blocked in a parking lot, so she texts the owner of the offending car, asking him to move. Talk about a limited imagination. This app would definitely — if not exclusively — be put to creepy uses. Remember when we thought the Internet would make us nicer?
License plate-derived intelligence is not new. Governmental agencies and law enforcement can easily collect license plates and link them to their owners to glean information about where and how we drive. With DiDi Plate, the threat is that the public would have access to information reserved for government officials, says Professor Ryan Calo, a privacy and technology expert at the University of Washington.
“The difference is that it’s in private hands,” he says, “with the opportunity to contact you.”
DiDi Plate is a jarring idea because it takes something the law requires drivers to display and makes it a tool others can use to track them, says Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Most of the time, people can ensure privacy by speaking quietly, closing the shades, or locking their doors. But they can’t legally choose not to have a license plate on their car. “That’s the crux of the problem,” says Tien. “You’re also exposing your license plate and basically who you are to everyone for all sorts of purposes.”
Whenever a new connectivity tool like this arrives, whether or not users can opt out makes a big difference. That brings up the most unsettling aspect of this technology: Regardless of whether you’ve registered the app, anyone can contact you, Du says.
Given society’s concerns about privacy these days, it’s unlikely Americans would accept DiDi. It has a better shot in China, which is where the app is likely headed. The country has a long history of repression and intense state surveillance, Tien says, so it’s hard to know if its citizens are OK with intrusions on their personal lives or simply accept them because there’s nothing they can do.
Either way, it looks like GM has a shot at making life in China a whole lot creepier.
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