For years I’ve gone back and forth over the practice of obscuring license plates on photos on the internet. License plates are already publicly-viewable things, so what’s the point in obscuring them, right? Well, now I think there actually is a good reason to obscure your license plates in photos because it appears that Google and Facebook are actually reading the plates in photos, and then making the actual license plate alphanumeric sequence searchable. I tested it. It works.
Starting with Google, the way this works is to search for the license plate number using Google Images. That’s it.
In my testing, I started with my own cars that I know have had images of their license plates in Jalopnik articles. For my Nissan Pao, a search of my license plate number brings up an image of my car, from one of my articles, as the first result:
It’s worth noting that the image search results aren’t even trying to differentiate the search term as a license plate; the number sequence has just been tagged to the photo automatically after whatever hidden Google OCR system reads the license plate. This can mean that someone searching a similar sequence of characters could likely end up with a result for your car if enough of those characters match your license plate.
I just checked a test I did on Facebook earlier today to see if they’re reading and tagging license plates, and, yep, it appears they are:
So, people can type your license plate into Facebook and, if it’s visible in any of your photos, it seems like it’ll show up! Great for you budding stalkers out there!
The takeaway here is that you should just assume your license plate is known and tagged to pictures of your car. Even if you obscure your plate in every image you yourself post, there’s no way to know what images your car and its license plate may be in the background of, meaning if it’s not searchable yet, it likely will be.
I suppose the positive side is that if you see a hit and run or someone’s blocking you in, it’s a lot easier to find out who’s being the jerk. On the negative side, it’s just a reminder that privacy in so many ways is eroding away, and there’s damn little we can do about it.