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Could we become a nation of digital squealers? Will technology go beyond state-sponsored surveillance of our behavior and turn us all into a society of snitches?

The ubiquity of smartphones has put James Bond-style spy tools into everyone’s hand, enabling us to secretly record video, audio and pictures, and instantly stream it all online. That can be a good thing when you catch junior hitting a home run and then send the video to grandma, or tag a family reunion picture for relatives who couldn’t attend. But what if you snap a scofflaw parked in an illegal space and send the image to the local constabulary? That’s what at least one company has proposed doing with an app.

Dubbed SpotSquad, the app is the brainchild of a Canadian startup in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The company did not respond to a press inquiry, but the program raises some interesting possibilities. Peeved citizens could take pictures (complete with license plate numbers) of cars parked in, say, spaces intended for handicapped drivers, then beam the shot to parking patrols, who would in turn issue tickets. As an added incentive tipsters could get a cut of the ticket fine.

In essence, it turns everyone into a cop. No more double parking to pick up the kids or drop off your date. Some people may be appalled by the idea, but we’re creeping slowly [or not so slowly] to the point where this may become an everyday occurrence.

For example, what was once simply a guaranteed way to fail your driving test, not coming to a complete halt at a stop sign is going to soon garner you an automatic ticket. In Washington, D.C., authorities are testing stop-sign cameras that would automatically issue tickets to practitioners of the infamous rolling stop. In D.C. they’re keen on camera enforcement — and for good reason. Cameras bring in money, lots of money!

A stop sign camera has been spotted in the District.This picture is from Van Ness St. and 42nd St. in northwest D.C.

The cameras have proven to be highly profitable. In fiscal 2012, traffic enforcement devices brought $84.9 million into the District’s coffers.

Two speed cameras in the tiny Prince George’s County town of Landover Hills (population less than 2,000), produced $1.3 million in fines in their first year of operation.

Last year, it was reported that a single speed camera in Washington, D.C., had raked in $11.6 million in fines over the course of two years. Wouldn’t it be great if each us got a cut of that revenue? Why not set up citizen speed traps?

Police and elected officials maintain that it’s not about the money. The cameras have made roadways and school zones safer, they said.

While that figure sounds inflated, the speed cameras have certainly cost drivers in the nation’s capital a pretty penny. Other municipalities have toyed with such surveillance, installing and then later eliminating such cameras, such as in Arizona and San Diego. Red light cameras are hidden in some cities; others warn drivers with conspicuous signs.

Red light cameras may save lives — if they are installed at dangerous intersections, the length of the yellow light is increased, and they are clearly marked. However, installing them at every corner trying to catch drivers making mistakes may not be the way to go. It’s a matter of over-policing. Why not, for example, start docking poor parallel parkers with a fine? It would, strictly speaking be legal (you’re too far or too close to the curb) and technologically possible but is it the right thing to do? Is that the kind of town you want to live in?

Some municipalities have jumped on the LPR (or license-plate reader) bandwagon as well, monitoring every vehicle to detect undesirables entering their town. Ostensibly a way for the police to find stolen cars or those reportedly involved in a crime, the LPR databases are also storing travel information on innocent motorists. And the information can be secretly used against you. In New York City, for example, the police department has been accused of using LPR programs to scan cars near mosques in order to find out who was attending services.

Fear about terrorism is habitually used to quell criticism of such practices. But where will the surveillance stop in a technologically over-heated environment where everyone has a hand-held digital spy kit or is (eventually) wearing Google Glass video monitors? Is the smallest misstep or mistake going to invoke an automatic fine? When you looked away, your gum wrapper toss missed the garbage pail. You jaywalked in a hurry to catch the bus.

Facial Recognition Apps: How Google & Apple Spy on You

In a press conference, President Obama tried again to mollify critics by saying that people simply needed to be convinced that no abuses of government surveillance could occur. What he didn’t seem to realize (or admit) is that constant, secret surveillance of all of us is already an abuse.

But who are we going to blame when we’ve all become a bunch of digital squealers?

Canadian mobile app SpotSquad will let users earn cash

Mobile app that lets drivers earn cash for reporting fellow motorists who have parked illegally

  • Canadian app SpotSquad aims to crowd source parking enforcement with a cash incentive
  • App uses GPS-tagged pictures and optical character recognition to record license plate numbers
  • Cash-in on parking violations

SpotSquad gives users a portion of the parking fine as a reward for reporting illegally-parked cars, according to FoxNews.com.

Developed by a 10-person Canadian tech startup in Winnipeg, the app aims to crowd source parking enforcement.

Scroll down for demo video

Target: Users of a forthcoming moblie app SpotSquad can get a cut of the fine when they report illegally-parked cars

Target: Users of a moblie app SpotSquad can get a cut of the fine when they report illegally-parked cars

The app is simple enough: When users spot a car parked illegally, they snap a picture. The picture is tagged with a GPS location and optical character recognition records the car’s license plate number. Users also choose from a drop-down list of parking infractions, from ‘time expired’ to ‘double parked’.

Using the car’s location, a report is automatically sent to the parking lot’s operator or local law enforcement, who dispatch personnel to issue a ticket or have the car towed.

Click on image then scroll down on page to see video:

Mobile app lets drivers get cash for reporting illegally parked..

The tentative business model has the company taking a percentage of the fine paid by a driver and splitting it with the user who reported the car in the first place. If users submit multiple successful reports, they’ll get paid at an increasing rate and will be awarded traditional military ranks from Private to General. Users can also choose to give their cut to charity.

Chris Johnson, one of the app’s co-founders, told CTVNews that they believe lots of people are open to the concept because of the number of accounts set up already.

Spotting: The app's users choose from a drop-down list of parking violations and snap a picture, which digitally records the GPS location of a car and its license plate number
Spotting: The app's users choose from a drop-down list of parking violations and snap a picture, which digitally records the GPS location of a car and its license plate number

Spotting: The app’s users will first choose from a drop-down list of parking violations and snap a picture, which digitally records the GPS location of a car and its license plate number

‘We’re getting the feeling this is the kind of thing everyone [is going to want to have] on their phone but no one admits to,’ he said.

Report: When users rack-up a lot of successful reports, they'll get an increasingly larger cut of the parking fine, which is first paid to the mobile company

Report: When users rack-up a lot of successful reports, they’ll get an increasingly larger cut of the parking fine, which is first paid to the mobile company

“The photos and users’ reports can’t be used in court, so official evidence must be collected by those parking operators and traffic cops who get word of the violation.”

‘We’re open to having conversations anywhere where there’s parking that needs to be controlled.”

A similar, though “less self-serving,” app is already used in America.

Parking Mobility allows trained volunteers to snap shots of cars illegally parked in disabled spots. A portion of the fines from those reports are given to the user’s favorite charity.

The Canadian app might cause some legal issues, said lawyer Brian Bowman. Users wouldn’t be bound by the same privacy laws as public sector workers who document illegally parked cars.

‘You are empowering citizens and paying them to arguably act as an agent for you,’ Bowman said.

It also has the potential to tick-off those whose cars are reported.

“Just read the signs, follow the rules and you won’t have a problem.”

Resources:

Stopsign camera heralds new era in surveillance

Stop sign camera spotted in the District – DC

Surveillance State | lisaleaks

United Surveillance States | lisaleaks

Facial Recognition Apps: How Google & Apple Spy on You

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) | lisaleaks

Police State | lisaleaks