Where Your Car License Plate Is a Spy, Daily Brief November 14, 2023

Daily Brief, November 14, 2023.


This is a story about license plates on cars, or “number plates” as some folks around the world call them.

You’re probably thinking: seriously? License plates? They’re a bit boring, no? Every country in the world has them. Where’s the human rights angle?

In Uganda, for one. There, a new surveillance system using high-tech and disturbingly not-boring-at-all license plates will allow the government to track all vehicles in the country every minute of the day.

The new effort, which the government launched on November 1, is called the “Intelligent Transport Monitoring System.” That sound you hear is your Orwell alarm going off – and rightly so.

To the country’s existing traffic surveillance, this new system will add an additional network of cameras, facial recognition, and mandatory tracking devices on all vehicles.

That’s where the license plates come in. All new plates will have an attached sim-card-equipped widget provided by the state-owned company, Uganda Telecommunications Corporation Ltd.

Through these special plates, police at the national command center will be able to track the location of all registered vehicles in real time. Foreign vehicles temporarily in Uganda will also be required to install the tracking devices while in the country.

The government has not allowed much public scrutiny of this new technical system and its capabilities, nor of their contract with the Russian company that will deliver the project and help run it for the first ten years – the generically named “Joint Stock Company Global Security.” My expert colleague, Oryem Nyeko, has called out this unchecked mass surveillance, highlighting how it is, “undermining the right to privacy for millions of Ugandans.”

Adding financial insult to fundamental rights injury, the government will make vehicle owners pay for the privilege of being spied on. Registering the new plates will cost you between 50,000 and 714,300 Ugandan shillings (about US$13 to US$190). That’s no small amount of money in a country where half of adults earn less than 150,000 shillings (US$39) a month. The whole thing is a terrible idea from start to finish. The government should scrap the system – and let license plates be boring again.