Show me your numbers

Number plates are by default part of the design of a bike, like the design of the rear suspension, hardtail, softail or with visible springs, the form of the seats, the lights and the engine, but they are in most cases just plain ugly. Number plates can or have to be as dominant as any fairing, visible to everybody, often in non-matching bright colors, like yellow here in the UK, and we carry them around to satisfy just a few eyes, mainly those of police officers and automated speed cameras. Number plates often destroy the carefully crafted design of a bike or a car, but changing, adjusting or omitting them quickly leads to serious problems with the law.

Luckily a bike only needs to carry around one of these huge and ugly pieces of plastic, placed where there is no natural space, on its backside. To make it a bit more tolerable, many drivers personalize their number plates, which is easier in some countries then others.

Here in the UK the DVLA has a well organized website where you can search your favorite combination, and if available, buy it at a price reflecting its originality. Or you can go through special auctions, where prices can go up into the hundred of thousands of pounds.

I choose not to pay extra, and selected one of the 15 plates my Harley-Davidson dealer had been allocated for new registrations. It is……

Wait a second… why do so many pictures on the web display just anonymity number plates?

And why does Google Streetview disfigure number plates? See here from a shot of Trafalgar Square:

I started to search the web to find a answer to this mystery, but did not come up with any clear lead, just emotional noise about exaggerated data protection desires. There seems to be no legal requirement to hide number plates, and as far as I can tell, it is not unlawful to show the picture of a car or a bike with its registration numbers clearly readable, as anyway they drive around visible for everybody. The plate is in the so called public domain, and not the private domain, as no direct connection to the owner can be made.

The one underlying state of mind in all comments and views is plain and simple FEAR…

Fear to be cloned, fear to be targeted by the police, fear to loose the anonymity of the web.

Why should I fear the police? My drive is legal, I am not a fugitive, and the insurance and tax are all paid. Why should I fear to loose my web anonymity, which is shaky anyway? No, these reasons do not convince me.

I think the danger to be cloned is the most real threat. If I wanted to clone a black Road King Classic, all I have to do is wait on the roadside for one to come by, or drive to the local Harley-Davidson dealer, or to a HOG meeting, and I have all details I need to superficially clone a black Harley. It is not difficult to perform this kind of “research”.

But with the help of the web, like with Google search images or Flickr, it gets even easier, one may start think it is a personal invitation to clone. Enter the right search terms and pick the plates of your choice. If you, the legitimate owners, are lucky,  your drive gets cloned hundreds of miles away. This will make it easier for you to prove to the police that it wasn’t you who drove through the red light in Inverness at 13:41 on the 12th of April 2010. But in a large city like London, to prove your innocence and the fact that your bike was actually cloned, may not be always so straight forward.

There is a more futuristic fear, one presently more of potential then actual danger: the fear to search for actual registration details in Google or other search engine. Today, you can search for a name, like Bleiglass, a brand, a bike type, even its color, if the image and tags are rightly set you get hundreds of results, but only very few when entering actual plate combination. Except however, if the search engines starts scanning the pictures pixels and add automatic tags, like geo-tags based on the recognition of famous buildings shape. Futuristic? Not really, take a look at the face recognition technology done in the new Apple Aperture 3.

Such scanning is not yet done systematically, but already today you can search for pictures in the color tone red, dominant with trees, dark or bright, etc. And to be able to search for pictures displaying somewhere on them a certain combination of numbers and letters is only a matter of time. And this will open a new can of dangers and fears. Imagine if many pictures of your bike are posted on the web, with the number plates clearly readable, one could then easily build a history of your whereabouts, including date, time and location. And that is something many of us may like to avoid for the most different reasons.

Remember the man captured on Google Street View while sheepishly leaving a sex shop…? Or the furious wife that called in divorce lawyers after spotting her husband’s car parked outside another woman’s house…?

We may never fully succeed, but I suggest we at least try to keep some anonymity intact. For a more personal contact, there are other, less public channels. Like my email…

to be continued…


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