Monday, July 19, 2010

Free Market Privacy Response to Red-Light Cameras, License Plate Readers

A commenter pointed out this commercial spray-on product that defeats red-light camera technology and likely also those pesky new License Plate Readers starting to be used around the state. See a story from Austin's KXAN-TV about the unintended spawning of this new technology and economic market by the expansion of police surveillance apparatus in public spaces.

I suppose the Legislature could try to ban the product, but they're divided even on whether red-light cameras are a good idea. Like radar detectors, the product raises the question of the legitimacy of profiting from helping people break the law without consequence. I suspect that generally, the willingness of the public to tolerate and use such products - just as with radar detectors - relates directly to the public's perception of the relative justice of the underlying statute.

The legal justification behind red-light cameras and license plate reading technologies is that individuals have no privacy rights in public because their license plate is in "plain sight" and could be read by anyone. If it works, this product empowers drivers to protect themselves from electronic surveillance but keeps the plate visible to any real-life officer or witness who might immediately need that information relating to a specific offense.

Ironically, makers of this product aren't necessarily against red-light cameras or government surveillance: They'd have no market without it! About the most you can say about this development is that the Law of Unintended Consequences remains in full effect.


Jennie said...

How cool is that! I have received one of those tickets only because a jerk behind me was "pushing" me through the light. I had no choice but to run it or get tapped. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Jennie, the guy behind you "made" you run a red light? That's pretty goddamned rich.

I can't cross the street in the crosswalk without worrying about some moron who is running late to pick up their kid from child care and texting all at the same time.

But if I have a beer after work and drive home I have the Gestapo watching me.


Those cameras don't bother me one bit, I obey traffic laws. What the problem?

Anonymous said...

3:21, the problems are so numerous and frequently talked about that you merely asking the question shows it's a waste of time to talk to you. See

Go educate yourself then come back here and talk with the grownups.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

3:21's "Gestapo" reference reminds me of a famous saying by Mike Godwin, who was editor of The Daily Texan when I edited its editorial page back in college.

After he left UT he went on to work for EFF on early internet-related litigation and at one point coined what's now popularly known as "Godwin's Law," which holds that, "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." The Wikipedia entry notes a common "corollary" to the law that "there is a tradition in many newsgroups and other Internet discussion forums that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically 'lost' whatever debate was in progress."

In your case, 3:21 you reached that milestone by the second comment. Thanks for your contribution.

Anonymous said...

These spray-on light refractors for plates have been around for a number of years now. I have the sneaking suspicion, however, that an plate reader, partcularly in a patrol car, would read an error and some agencies may infer that to be probable cause for a traffic stop. How very dangerous this is to civil liberties.

In response to Jennie and 3:21, what I was taught in all my schooling regarding red lights is that you are free to run a light that has just turned red if it is too dangerous to stop, e.g., the vehicle behind you is traveling too close and stopping at the light would result in a collision. Though the driver behind would be at fault for the wreck, it would still ruin your day. You are also required by law to travel through a red light if there is an emergency vehicle behind you, then immediately pull over to the side of the ride. All of this is in the DPS handbook we get as teenagers. However, red light cameras do not take these situations into consideration.

Oh, and I think I am a member of the "Gestapo." At least that is one name I was given by my probationers. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Do a Google News on red light camera. There is a national rebellion brewing. This November there are going to be at least a half-dozen municipalities across the U.S. that will be voting on referendums to ban red light cameras. To the best of my knowledge no such referendum has yet failed to pass in a U.S. city.

If the Houston referendum passes as I strongly suspect it will, then I believe that we can look forward to the Texas House once again voting to ban red light cameras in Texas, and this time maybe those morons in the Texas Senate will get the message.

Chris H said...

I thought the lege already had banned the product through transportation code 502.409.

I'm sure one person's reading of it is plain sight visibility, but another's would include cameras being able to read the license plate.

Don't get me wrong, in my book, the only legitimate reason for the state having a unique id for every vehicle is officer safety and if the officer isn't physically reading your plate, there's no safety issue involved.

Anonymous said...

FWIW - they tested this product (and several other items) on Mythbusters a couple of years ago. Spoiler alert: it didn't work. Neither did the glitter plate covers, driving really fast (tested on a race track), plastic wrap, etc. Perhaps the technology has improved since 2008, but I'm skeptical of its effectiveness.

Anonymous said...

A friend from South Africa tweeted me to say the following about the efficacy of license plate readers:

until a huge market in fake license plates develops. It's happened in response to speed cameras in South Africa.

-Forrest Wilder
Texas Observer

Anonymous said...

Could a push for these new readers also be in response to the new 7-character plates that are difficult to read at a distance due to the color scheme, and the ridiculous glare at certain angles? Seems that DPS had someone from an office in Austin approve of the design rather than getting street-level employees to weigh in on it.

Anonymous said...

I just ordered some. I'll let you know if it works.

Anonymous said...

LOL Grits. Well, I'm impressed you were once acquainted with Mr. Godwin. However, in skipping to the corollary you completley overlooked his secondary observation that "given enough time, all discussions -- regardless of topic or scope -- inevitably wind up being about Hitler and the Nazis."

In any case, I wasn't Godwinning Jennie on redlight cameras or analogizing them to the Nazis. I'm saying they don't bother me as much as real life cops who all to often do act like the Gestap. This whole blog is a testament to that IMO.

Oh yea, you know who else was a master of diversion?

Love ya, bro :)