I’m sure you’ve seen it before. Blurring out your vehicle’s license plate in photos has been a popular thing to do for many years. There’s also been an on-going debate about whether or not it’s necessary. So why do people blur their license plates online, and should you be doing it too?
Blurring a license plate online is done for two different reasons: either to protect your privacy or to avoid incriminating yourself. It is possible to dig up the owner’s info if the number ends up in the wrong hands. It can also be reported to police whether or not you’ve done something wrong.
Blurring out your license plate is a matter of limiting your exposure to potential thieves, stalkers, and other troublemakers. If that’s something that’s important to you, then go ahead and do it. It’s quick and easy to do and will make it a bit more difficult for people to mess with you.
With the number of identity theft cases constantly rising, people are becoming more and more worried about their personal information. For some, that’s all it is; a minor worry. But others feel better knowing they’ve taken every precaution possible to protect themselves.
We live in a crazy, modern world where hackers and thieves continuously surprise us with what they’re capable of. How often have you heard the term “data breach” in the news in the past few years? Our privacy is a concern, now more than ever.
Reasons why people blur their license plates:
Why would anyone feel the need to hide their license plates on the internet? Here are a few things people are concerned about:
Vehicles being stolen
Vehicles go missing every day. Customized and high-end vehicles are prime targets to thieves. Finding a forum post that details every aspect of a flashy car is like Christmas morning to a car thief. Your mod list becomes a shopping list. And by exposing your license plate, you’re essentially telling them where the “store” is.
They might even have a buyer for your car before they steal it! It was very kind of you to tell them how valuable your car is, and where to find it.
Vehicles have been sold with alarms and immobilizers for many years now, and yet they’re still being stolen. Why is that? Because the common car thief has replaced his Slim Jim with a laptop. These guys are smart cookies.
Sure, you could say that this is why we have car insurance. But some cars have sentimental value. Some aren’t insured properly. And there’s also the risk of having a dangerous interaction with the thief.
We live in a world where card readers in stores and at gas pumps are the norm. We also have cases of mail fraud and incidents where criminals sort through the documents in your trash. Identity theft is a big problem.
These aren’t the typical guys that steal your unlocked bicycle out of your backyard. We’re talking about worldwide crime rings. Think a hacker can’t access your personal info from your license plate number? Think again.
Remember that noob that you pwned and humiliated online? Well, he found some other sites that you used the same username on. That cool sunset pic that you have in your signature on the local BMW forum revealed your license plate. Now he knows where you live. And he’s mad. Hope you locked your doors!
Prosecution from law enforcement
If you’ve posted any photos or videos of any illegal activity (burnouts, drifting, speeding, racing etc) with your license plate exposed, you just did the police a huge favor. This makes for easy prosecution.
If they have proof showing you behind the wheel, as well as your license plate, it’s an open and shut case. All they have to do is show up at your house. You did all of the hard work for them.
Getting into trouble with an insurance company
You would be surprised at how far an insurance company will go to be able to deny coverage to someone. They don’t like it when you modify your car and they don’t like it when you race it at the track. If they catch you in the act, you’re toast.
A few years ago, there was a case here locally where insurance companies sent employees undercover to race tracks in order to write down the license plates of every car they saw racing. When they got back to the office, they’d run the plates to see if you were a customer and if you were, you’d be dropped.
Showing evidence of modifications to your car that they don’t know about is also a great way to get dropped. By sharing the install of your huge turbo, you’re admitting guilt. And thanks to your exposed license plate, they know exactly who you are.
Remaining anonymous online
Not everyone wants to share their identity online. A license plate is an identifier and tells people who you really are. Think of any forums you’ve joined in the past. Did you register with your first and last name, or an anonymous username? In the location section, did you list your full address? If not, you probably did that for a reason. For that same reason, you’ll probably want to blur your plate.
How much of a difference does it really make?
The thing is, blurring your license plates won’t necessarily prevent anything bad from happening to you. It might not even make any difference at all. But if you share enough of your life online, any savvy criminal can spend a few hours and build a profile on you.
Where you live. Where you work. What you drive. Other expensive belongings you might own. How often you’re away from home. Social media, forum posts, and your license plate make their job even easier.
As car guys, we love to share details of our vehicles with other car guys. That’s why so many of these online forums and facebook groups exist in the first place. Blurring our license plates in photos allows us to use these without making ourselves vulnerable.
Who can access your personal info through your license plate number?
In 1994, the USA passed a law known as the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act. This essentially means that regular citizens can’t access your personal information from your license plate. Who can access it?
- Police officers
- DMV employees
- Insurance company employees
So you should be pretty safe, right? I wish that were the case. Whether you choose to believe it or not, corruption is everywhere. The people mentioned above all have friends and family members. Some of which, they might owe a favor or two.
They could also be an employee by day and a criminal by night. Just because a regular citizen shouldn’t have access to your info doesn’t mean they won’t. No system is perfect.
Here in Canada, you can file a request for info on a license plate with the MTO. It will give you a postal code, but not a complete address. That’s more than enough for a bad guy though. The good news is, they have to give their own personal info in order to get yours. The bad news is, they’ll probably lie about it.
As an example, I did a quick Google image search for “black Corvette”. I was able to find a photo of a car with an exposed license plate and run a lookup on a 3rd party site in less than 5 minutes. According to that site, I would have the name of the owner, list of traffic citations, DUI/DWI offenses, registration details, vehicle history report and accident report for just $2.95.
Admittedly, most of these lookup websites are scams. This info is likely outdated and applies to a previous owner of the vehicle. However, hiring a licensed investigator for a low fee should return plenty of current, private info.
How to blur a license plate in photoshop
You can use a basic Paint program to cover up your license plate if you want to but it won’t look very nice. Blurring a license plate in Photoshop is quick and easy. If you’re already editing the image in the program, it literally takes a few extra seconds. Even if there’s only a small chance that it will help, I’ll still sacrifice that tiny amount of time just in case.
Here’s how you do it:
- Open the image in Photoshop
- Make a duplicate layer
- Using the Lasso Tool, roughly trace around the outside of the license plate (this doesn’t have to be perfect)
- Now go to Filter > Blur > Lens Blur
These are the settings I use:
Blur Radius: 59
Roundness / blade curvature: 0
- Unselect the area by clicking anywhere else on the pic with the Lasso Tool
- Now choose the Eraser Tool with a softer setting and carefully erase the outside edges so the area blends in better with the rest of the image
- Go to Layer > Flatten Image to flatten everything back down to 1 layer
That’s it! Once you get the hang of it, you can do this in about 20 seconds. Simple, right?
But people see your plate all the time in real life, what’s the difference?
This is a common argument, but there is a difference. When you’re driving around in public, people see your license plate briefly. The chances of a potential troublemaker remembering your license plate along with all the details and modifications on your car are pretty slim.
In contrast, the internet is permanent. People can go back and reference the photo as many times as they want. A thief can pay close attention to all of the sellable parts on your car as well as check out what other vehicles might be in your garage.
This is also why I’m not a fan of personalized plates that are easy to remember. A random series of letters and numbers is hard to remember. The name “BooBoo” is not.
So, should you blur your license plate?
That’s up to you. In my opinion, it doesn’t hurt. It’s so easy, and there’s a chance it could prevent something bad from happening. It literally takes a few seconds in Photoshop. It’s worth noting that Google does it on all of the cars shown in their Street View. They wouldn’t go to all that bother without a good reason.
Most of us lock our houses when we leave. Does that mean it’s impossible for burglars to get in? Of course not. Chances are, there’s a glass window right beside that deadbolted front door. We’re just keeping the honest people honest. If a thief wants your stuff bad enough, they’re going to get it. All we can do is try to make their job harder and blurring your license plates is one way to do that.
If you’re sharing a photo of someone else’s vehicle, it’s common courtesy to blur the plate. You don’t know what side of the argument the owner is on. Leaving it exposed tends to give off the vibe that you don’t care about protecting their info.
The opposite is true if you blur it. It’s just the right thing to do. If you’re an up and coming photographer at a car show, go ahead and blur them. The owner has supplied the object that you’ll be making some killer content out of, the least you can do is show them you care. Who knows, going the extra mile might make them choose you for a paid photoshoot!
Here’s something to remember: People who see your license plate in real life are localized. Once it’s posted online, the entire world has access to it. That increases the chances of it falling into the wrong hands in a big way. A little caution won’t hurt. Don’t be an easy target for the bad guys.
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: