Is New Bump.com License Plate Feature A Privacy Car Wreck?

You probably never thought of your license plate as a social media tool, but Bump.com is trying to change that.   The online start up has big ideas to turn America’s highways into a mobile social network, but is it more potential privacy crash than the next big Web idea?

The license plate messaging Android app and mobile site lets users “safely” send voice, email, photo, and SMS messages to a vehicle’s license plate.

In short, goodbye honking, winking and waving, hello text messaging.

Joining the Bump network activates an account for your car based on the license plate number listed in public databases for motor vehicle registrations.

“BUMP.com has created an email inbox for every registered vehicle in America,” the company explains.

If that sounds scary, keep reading.

The service will capture your license plate whether you like it or not, but you do have to sign up and identify yourself as the owner of your license plate in order to actually receive messages.

Registered users connect their Bump.com account to their mobile phone and Facebook and Twitter accounts. The company’s technology then allows users to use a car’s license plate number to send text and email messages and place calls to others within the Bump network.

Its founders envision Bump, launched commercially this week at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, as meeting a variety of needs, from safety and business to social.

“Social uses include introductions, compliments or invitations. Safety includes anything from a heads up about a broken tail light to an admonishment for an unsafe driving maneuver to a warning that something’s happening to your car,” said Mitch Thrower, the founder of BUMP.com.

A major hurdle for the start up will be making even the most social network-friendly Internet users comfortable giving this information, but users can set their privacy settings to determine what other people see.

Bump has an opt-in privacy policy where users’ messages default to private, and users can always choose not to respond to messages that come from people they don’t know.

The company also says it will keep user data private, and won’t provide comments about users’ driving habits to car insurance companies.

In terms of ground safety for its own users, and everyone else on the road, BUMP is working on that too.

The service has a “profanity filter” that turns obscene words into “cartoonish words” in an effort to defuse road rage. There’s also a feature on the smartphone app that shuts down the phone’s ability to send text messages when it senses that the car is in motion.

So far, the company has collected more than 250,000 license plates from a combination of messages sent by beta testers and public video feeds like cameras at tollbooths.

“It’s kind of like a national, social-networked 1-800-How’s-My-Driving?” according to Thrower.

The basic service is free but, coming soon, is a premium version of the service with free roadside assistance for $49 per year, along with plans to add features like taxi-driver ratings and partnerships with local merchants.

What do you think of Bump.com? Would you give it a try?

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