Seed’s editorial policy is unusually generous in the latitude we ScienceBloggers get. Let’s hope it’s generous enough for this!
Linked via Instapundit, I saw this interesting article about theft of and damage to speed cameras. As an strong supporter of civil liberties, this warms my heart. If a flesh-and-blood police officer catches me speeding, fair enough. But ubiquitous surveillance of every move, invading privacy in order to fill city treasuries… I’m not such a fan.
And make no mistake, it is to fill treasuries. Public safety is a convenient fig leaf. Studies have shown that in fact the cameras can increase accidents, and some cities have been caught shortening yellow light times, deliberately trying to cause violations in order to increase revenue. The cameras are just bad news all around, both from a perspective of freedom and a purely practical perspective.
There’s two legitimate ways to fight these cameras. One is the usual method of voting, calling representatives, etc. The other is simply being very careful when driving in the hopes that unprofitable cameras will be shut down. It has happened. Did I mention the fact that public safety has nothing to do with these cameras?
But that doesn’t always work. It didn’t in Britain, for instance, where literally millions of cameras watch British citizens. Apparently the government does it for the pure statist joy of it, as the non-traffic cameras do not generate revenue at all.
So we’d like to pursue alternate ways of getting rid of these cameras. Like all modern video cameras, they’re entirely electronic. They consist of a CCD chip to pick up the image, connected to a circuit board to construct the pictures from the CCD data and send it off to whomever’s watching you go about your business. Both circuit boards and CCDs are fragile things. We can come up with ways to break them. Here’s a few of my thoughts – don’t actually do any of them:
1. Mechanical disruption. In other words, actually physically breaking the camera itself. You have to either get to the camera and take it apart or just steal it (as in the first article above). Just shooting it sounds nice, but is unacceptably dangerous. Even for those with less concern for their fellow citizens, getting caught with a screwdriver probably means community service or county jail, getting caught with a rifle probably means PMITA prison. As it should.
2. Image disruption. Prevent the camera from recording by spray paining the lens or equivalent. It’s easy to fix, but it costs money both in the repair and in the time it’s not writing tickets. Problems include the fact that cameras are often high off the ground and constantly recording, so not only are they hard to reach they might well be sending your exploit straight to the local police IT department.
3. Heat. Electronics don’t like to be hot. They really don’t like to be set on fire. This is more or less a variation of the above two methods with many of the same risks and problems, but it’s something that has been done with some success. How to safely get the fire to a camera mounted 20 feet above the ground on a traffic light? Beats me.
But all these are just regular things that any old vandal can do. We’re scientists, we can do better. Here’s some other ideas:
4. Lasers. Potentially this is as good as a rifle but with none of the risks. Point it at the camera and wait for a hole to be drilled in it, or alternately for the camera to overheat and fail. The problem is that you need a heck of a laser. Kilowatts, probably. The kinds of lasers that would suffice are both huge and expensive. Tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars expensive.
5. Microwaves. If you take your cell phone and put it in your microwave for one second, it will be completely and irretrievably fried. What a microwave oven does is create some fairly hefty alternating electric fields, and those fields cause voltage buildups that absolutely murder electronics. It would be difficult but doable to make a directed beam of microwave radiation to use to destroy electronics. It has in fact been done by the armed forces of several nations, but we don’t need military grade equipment, just a few dozen watts at very modest distances. Problems are the same as lasers – bulk and expense with the added danger of turning yourself into a microwave dinner.
So that’s a few ideas. DO NOT TRY ANY OF THEM. I don’t want your jail time (or microwaved insides) on my conscience. But it is an interesting intellectual exercise. You may have suggestions of your own, which I’d be interested to hear as well.