Entries Tagged "cars"

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Please Stop My Car

Residents of Prescott Valley are being invited to register their car if they don’t drive in the middle of the night. Police will then stop those cars if they are on the road at that time, under the assumption that they’re stolen.

The Watch Your Car decal program is a voluntary program whereby vehicle owners enroll their vehicles with the AATA. The vehicle is then entered into a special database, developed and maintained by the AATA, which is directly linked to the Motor Vehicle Division (MVD).

Participants then display the Watch Your Car decals in the front and rear windows of their vehicle. By displaying the decals, vehicle owners convey to law enforcement officials that their vehicle is not usually in use between the hours of 1:00 AM and 5:00 AM, when the majority of thefts occur.

If a police officer witnesses the vehicle in operation between these hours, they have the authority to pull it over and question the driver. With access to the MVD database, the officer will be able to determine if the vehicle has been stolen, or not. The program also allows law enforcement officials to notify the vehicle’s owner immediately upon determination that it is being illegally operated.

This program is entirely optional, but there’s a serious externality. If the police spend time chasing false alarms, they’re not available for other police business. If the town charged car owners a fine for each false alarm, I would have no problems with this program. It doesn’t have to be a large fine, but it has to be enough to offset the cost to the town. It’s no different than police departments charging homeowners for false burglar alarms, when the alarm systems are automatically hooked into the police stations.

Posted on October 16, 2006 at 6:30 AMView Comments

Cell Phone Security

No, it’s not what you think. This phone has a built-in Breathalyzer:

Here’s how it works: Users blow into a small spot on the phone, and if they’ve had too much to drink the phone issues a warning and shows a weaving car hitting traffic cones.

You can also configure the phone not to let you dial certain phone numbers if you’re drunk. Think ex-lovers.

Now that’s a security feature I can get behind.

Posted on July 5, 2006 at 2:45 PMView Comments

Terrorist Travel Advisory

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

My son and I woke up Sunday morning and drove a rented truck to New York City to move his worldly goods into an apartment there. As we made it to the Holland Tunnel, after traveling the Tony Soprano portion of the Jersey Turnpike with a blue moon in our eyes, the woman in the toll booth informed us that, since 9/11, trucks were not allowed in the tunnel; we’d have to use the Lincoln Tunnel, she said. So if you are a terrorist trying to get into New York from Jersey, be advised that you’re going to have to use the Lincoln Tunnel.

Posted on April 20, 2006 at 12:09 PMView Comments

Vehicle Tracking in the UK

Universal automobile surveillance is coming:

Britain is to become the first country in the world where the movements of all vehicles on the roads are recorded. A new national surveillance system will hold the records for at least two years.

Using a network of cameras that can automatically read every passing number plate, the plan is to build a huge database of vehicle movements so that the police and security services can analyse any journey a driver has made over several years.

The network will incorporate thousands of existing CCTV cameras which are being converted to read number plates automatically night and day to provide 24/7 coverage of all motorways and main roads, as well as towns, cities, ports and petrol-station forecourts.

By next March a central database installed alongside the Police National Computer in Hendon, north London, will store the details of 35 million number-plate “reads” per day. These will include time, date and precise location, with camera sites monitored by global positioning satellites.

As The Independent opines, this is only the beginning:

The new national surveillance network for tracking car journeys, which has taken more than 25 years to develop, is only the beginning of plans to monitor the movements of all British citizens. The Home Office Scientific Development Branch in Hertfordshire is already working on ways of automatically recognising human faces by computer, which many people would see as truly introducing the prospect of Orwellian street surveillance, where our every move is recorded and stored by machines.

Although the problems of facial recognition by computer are far more formidable than for car number plates, experts believe it is only a matter of time before machines can reliably pull a face out of a crowd of moving people.

If the police and security services can show that a national surveillance operation based on recording car movements can protect the public against criminals and terrorists, there will be a strong political will to do the same with street cameras designed to monitor the flow of human traffic.

I’ve already written about the security risks of what I call “wholesale surveillance.” Once this information is collected, it will be misused, lost, and stolen. It will be filled with errors. The problems and insecurities that come from living in a surveillance society more than outweigh any crimefighting (and terrorist-fighting) advantages.

Posted on December 22, 2005 at 2:41 PMView Comments

Truckers Watching the Highways

Highway Watch is yet another civilian distributed counterterrorism program. Basically, truckers are trained to look out for suspicious activities on the highways. Despite its similarities to such ill-conceived still-born programs like TIPS, I think this one has some merit.

Why? Two things: training, and a broader focus than terrorism. This is from their overview:

Highway Watch® training provides Highway Watch® participants with the observational tools and the opportunity to exercise their expert understand of the transportation environment to report safety and security concerns rapidly and accurately to the authorities. In addition to matters of homeland security – stranded vehicles or accidents, unsafe road conditions, and other safety related situations are reported eliciting the appropriate emergence responders. Highway Watch® reports are combined with other information sources and shared both with federal agencies and the roadway transportation sector by the Highway ISAC.

Sure, the “matters of homeland security” is the sexy application that gets the press and the funding, but “stranded vehicles or accidents, unsafe road conditions, and other safety related situations” are likely to be the bread and butter of this kind of program. And interstate truckers are likely to be in a good position to report these things, assuming there’s a good mechanism for it.

About the training:

Highway Watch® participants attend a comprehensive training session before they become certified Highway Watch® members. This training incorporates both safety and security issues. Participants are instructed on what to look for when witnessing traffic accidents and other safety-related situations and how to make a proper emergency report. Highway Watch® curriculum also provides anti-terrorism information, such as: a brief account of modern terrorist attacks from around the world, an outline explaining how terrorist acts are usually carried out, and tips on preventing terrorism. From this solid baseline curriculum, different segments of the highway sector have or are developing unique modules attuned to their specific security related situation.

Okay, okay, it does sound a bit hokey. “…tips on preventing terrorism” indeed. (Tip #7: When transporting nuclear wastes, always be sure to padlock your truck. Tip #12: If someone asks you to deliver a trailer to the parking lot underneath a large office building and run away very fast, always check with your supervisor first.) But again, I like the inclusion of the mundane “what to look for when witnessing traffic accidents and other safety-related situations and how to make a proper emergency report.”

This program has a lot of features I like in security systems: it’s dynamic, it’s distributed, it relies on trained people paying attention, and it’s not focused on a specific threat.

Usually we see terrorism as the justification for something that is ineffective and wasteful. Done right, this could be an example of terrorism being used as the justification for something that is smart and effective.

Posted on December 8, 2005 at 12:12 PMView Comments

Automatic License Plate Scanners

The Boston Transportation Department, among other duties, hands out parking tickets. If a car has too many unpaid parking tickets, the BTD will lock a Denver Boot to one of the wheels, making the car unmovable. Once the tickets are paid up, the BTD removes th boot.

The white SUV in this photo is owned by the Boston Transportation Department. Its job is to locate cars that need to be booted. The two video cameras on top of the vehicle are hooked up to a laptop computer running license plate scanning software. The vehicle drives around the city scanning plates and comparing them with the database of unpaid parking tickets. When a match is found, the BTD officers jump out and boot the offending car. You can sort of see the boot on the front right wheel of the car behind the SUV in the photo.

This is the kind of thing I call “wholesale surveillance,” and I’ve written about license plate scanners in that regard last year.

Technology is fundamentally changing the nature of surveillance. Years ago, surveillance meant trench-coated detectives following people down streets. It was laborious and expensive, and was only used when there was reasonable suspicion of a crime. Modern surveillance is the policeman with a license-plate scanner, or even a remote license-plate scanner mounted on a traffic light and a policeman sitting at a computer in the station. It’s the same, but it’s completely different. It’s wholesale surveillance.

And it disrupts the balance between the powers of the police and the rights of the people.


Like the license-plate scanners, the electronic footprints we leave everywhere can be automatically correlated with databases. The data can be stored forever, allowing police to conduct surveillance backwards in time.

The effects of wholesale surveillance on privacy and civil liberties is profound; but unfortunately, the debate often gets mischaracterized as a question about how much privacy we need to give up in order to be secure. This is wrong. It’s obvious that we are all safer when the police can use all techniques at their disposal. What we need are corresponding mechanisms to prevent abuse, and that don’t place an unreasonable burden on the innocent.

Throughout our nation’s history, we have maintained a balance between the necessary interests of police and the civil rights of the people. The license plate itself is such a balance. Imagine the debate from the early 1900s: The police proposed affixing a plaque to every car with the car owner’s name, so they could better track cars used in crimes. Civil libertarians objected because that would reduce the privacy of every car owner. So a compromise was reached: a random string of letter and numbers that the police could use to determine the car owner. By deliberately designing a more cumbersome system, the needs of law enforcement and the public’s right to privacy were balanced.

The search warrant process, as prescribed in the Fourth Amendment, is another balancing method. So is the minimization requirement for telephone eavesdropping: the police must stop listening to a phone line if the suspect under investigation is not talking.

For license-plate scanners, one obvious protection is to require the police to erase data collected on innocent car owners immediately, and not save it. The police have no legitimate need to collect data on everyone’s driving habits. Another is to allow car owners access to the information about them used in these automated searches, and to allow them to challenge inaccuracies.

The Boston Globe has written about this program.

Richard M. Smith, who took this photo, made a public request to the BTD last summer for the database of scanned license plate numbers that is being collected by this vehicle. The BTD told him at the time that the database is not a public record, because the database is owned by AutoVu, the Canadian company that makes the license plate scanner software used in the vehicle. This software is being “loaned” to the City of Boston as part of a “beta” test program.

Anyone doubt that AutoVu is going to sell this data to a company like ChoicePoint?

Posted on October 7, 2005 at 1:49 PMView Comments

RFID Car Keys

RFID car keys (subscription required) are becoming more popular. Since these devices broadcast a unique serial number, it’s only a matter of time before a significant percentage of the population can be tracked with them.

Lexus has made what it calls the “SmartAccess” keyless-entry system standard on its new IS sedans, designed to compete with German cars like the BMW 3 series or the Audi A4, as well as rivals such as the Infiniti G35 or the U.S.-made Cadillac CTS. BMW offers what it calls “keyless go” as an option on the new 3 series, and on its higher-priced 5, 6 and 7 series sedans.

Volkswagen AG’s Audi brand offers keyless-start systems on its A6 and A8 sedans, but not yet on U.S.-bound A4s. Cadillac’s new STS sedan, big brother to the CTS, also offers a pushbutton start.

Starter buttons have a racy flair—European sports cars and race cars used them in the past. The proliferation of starter buttons in luxury sedans has its roots in theft protection. An increasing number of cars now come with theft-deterrent systems that rely on a chip in the key fob that broadcasts a code to a receiver in the car. If the codes don’t match, the car won’t start.

Cryptography can be used to make these devices anonymous, but there’s no business reason for automobile manufacturers to field such a system. Once again, the economic barriers to security are far greater than the technical ones.

Posted on October 5, 2005 at 8:13 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.