Aug 15, 2011

Harlingen Keeps Copying its 'Big Brother'

 Still Image from Umbrella-Rosenblum Films Production Feature "1984"

An article featured on Channel 4's website last week reported that Harlingen (TX) has added cameras to some stop lights, as well as police vehicles, designed to scan your license plates.

The Harlingen PD states that cameras would not be used to issue traffic violations, but as a system to identify criminals, and possibly even kidnap victims. The theory is that the cameras will scan the license plates of all vehicles that pass in front of them, if the plates are on a list of registered criminals, sex offenders, and/or stolen cars or related to an Amber Alert, nearby police vehicles will stop to investigate.

Just how effective will this system be though, is it possible that it can make mistakes, and if so, what would be the consequences?

Theses types of systems have been used all ever the world for a while now, they’re know as Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems, and of course, as is the case with any new(ish) technology, there are some know issues.  Critics suggest, aside from the obvious privacy issues, there are two reported problems with these systems,

Problem One: False Positives.
As sophisticated as the system may be, it’s not perfect. Anyone who has ever taken a picture with a digital camera is well aware of just how blurry moving objects can turn out, no matter how advanced a camera may be, it can still make the simple error of reading a B as an 8 for example. Yes, in most cases these types of errors could easily be cleared up, and it’s doubtful it will lead to any false arrests, but it sure will be a huge waste the Police Department's valuable time.

Problem Two: Plate Cloning.
A criminal may decide to clone your plates, stick them onto another vehicle, commit a crime using that vehicle, and you end up being the one getting stopped. It may seem unlikely to happen, but it’s not impossible. Again, this mix-up could also be easily resolved, but it’s yet another huge waste of valuable time.

In spite of these problems however, I don’t think this is an all-that-bad idea. If it helps catch some bad guys before they commit a crime, or better yet, if they help save a child that has been kidnapped, then the system would have proven itself worth it. The thing that does scare me about this system however is, what if a false positive distracts a police officer from possibly preventing a true crime, what would the system prove itself to be then?

Reference Article: Problems with ANPR

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