Vandalizing Big Brother

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.

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For anything with a lens, a frozen paintball will spall the glass or crack the plastic, much like a BB gun.

What I'm suggesting is that everyone use good eye protection around paintball guns.

By Nelson Muntz (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

On two occasions I've been broadsided by idiots who ran red lights, so I'm disappointed to find out that red-light cameras don't improve safety -- up to this point I actually thought they were a good idea. Getting nailed on the driver's side by a mid-sized car going 45mph kinda hurts!

Speed cameras, though...did anyone ever believe these things were for anything but revenue? It'd be nice if the vandals in my neighborhood made themselves useful for once.


By Roadtripper (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

@Nelson Beat me to the paintball/BB gun suggestion. ;)

Would some sort of a directed ion stream generate enough power to fry one?

What about using a spotlight (3 million candlepower, say) to damage the cameras? I'm assuming they're low light cameras, so presumably there's some kind of light magnification at night. That amount of light might damage something.

No idea if either of those will work, I've never tried to vandalize cameras before. ;)

By JThompson (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

How about this one. How about a truck (F350 or bigger) with a chain and hook. If you can't get to it, you can pull it down.

Actually I've seen a couple red light cameras in my area knocked down. It's pretty funny.


My understanding is that the speed cameras that photograph you if they detect you speeding at a particular point basically force people to slow down suddenly (before the camera) and therefore dont promote safety (in general).

However some speed traps work by having 2 sensors spaced widely apart and calculating your average speed over the section of road. These seem more useful - id be curious if anyone knows if these actually do improve safety.

"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."

Not sure that makes sense to me - why is a real police office preferable to the camera?

I read an article about how the red light cameras just encourage everyone to slam on their brakes when the light turns yellow, which in turn causes more accidents.

In terms of defeating the cameras, I wonder if bright IR emitters could be used to effectively blind them. At the very least you could put a ring of IR LEDs around your license plate to obscure it. A quick search turned up this article:

Anchorage Alaska had red light cameras and had shortened the yellows for the same reason. I don't doubt that the list of cities that shortened it's yellow lights is far from complete.

Besides the public outcry, what got them removed was when people realized that all they had to do was take the case to court where they could exercise their Constitutional right of facing their accuser. With no accusers, the cases were constantly thrown out of court.

The Brits tend to throw a tire over them and burn the tire.

Bexley asks,

Why is a real police office preferable to the camera?

In my city, tickets issued by an officer are processed through the traffic court system which has a well-understood appeals process, statutory framework, and fee structure. Tickets issued by a red light camera are billed by a private contractor (!) and the only legal framework is through the Office of Administrative Hearings, under the Legal department. Fees are set during the annual budget battle between the Council and the Mayor.

One one hand, red light camera tickets do not apply penalty points to your driver's license. On the other, malfunctions can and do result in spurious tickets (legal right turns on red appear to cause many of these). A police officer is able to make a judgement call, but the camera just silently mails you a bill. On the upside, there is a website to visit where you can see what the camera saw. Disclaimer: I have never been issued a red light ticket by either a camera or a policeman.

By Mrs. Smith (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

If I break into a house and a policeman is there waiting for me then I don't mind being arrested. But a burglar alarm? No way!

By Donalbain (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

#5: "Not sure that makes sense to me - why is a real police office preferable to the camera?"

It's not the traffic enforcement itself that's the problem. Both officers and cameras do that thing pretty well. The problem is that cameras can be made ubiquitous and their recordings both permanent and centrally processed. In an era with extremely inexpensive image processing and digital storage, that quickly gets worrisome.

I'd have the same kind of objection to every person being assigned a human police officer to stand over their shoulder every second they stepped outside their house.

Speed cameras, though...did anyone ever believe these things were for anything but revenue?

As I recall from a visit a few years ago, Brazil is explicit about this. A few hundred meters before the speed camera, you will see a sign that says "Fiscalização Electronica" (the translation of which should be obvious). Everybody hits the brakes to make sure they are below (in most cases well below) the posted speed limit when they pass the cameras.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

A radar gun registers the largest estimate of radial velocity among the targets seen in its main lobe.

If you are approaching at 44 in a 45 zone, the radar should ignore you. If, while you are still in its view, a car behind you enters the view doing 55, the camera takes a picture, and if you're the one in front, you get the ticket.

A target with a large enough radar cross section, vibrating in simple harmonic motion so that the surface hits the target speed, will trigger the camera. Someone could have great fun making the camera fire off pictures of empty streets, or a car stopped in the middle of the road with the hood up and the driver looking beneath. Or firing it off every time a police car came into view. If you can vibrate it enough to peak at 100 miles an hour, imagine the fun you could have.

By Nelson Muntz (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

All this nonsense would stop if, every time the speed camera proved wrong, everyone who had anything to do with manufacturing and propagating the false evidence went to prison for perjury.

By Nelson Muntz (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

You are well behind the worry curve so let's try to keep up, okay? From Sanders Research [1] a few to include in your next techno-jihad:

* Most new automobiles retain the last few minutes of driving activity in their computerized control system.
* Police officers asked that a remote device be developed to allow them to shut off an automobile's computer and thus its engine.
* The lives of lonely commercial truck drivers have changed this past decade as companies installed GPS trackers.
* Some owners canceled [the OnStar GPS system] when they learned that law enforcement had used the system to track suspects and monitored their conversations by remotely turning on OnStar's hands-free microphone.
* Since 2005, cell phone makers are required to install GPS-capable chips as standard equipment.
* International agreements require every nation to introduce 'biometric passports' that can be compared to the holder's fingerprint or iris.

I suggest you begin by taking a hammer to your cell phone, followed by cutting up your credit cards, passport, drivers license and vehicle registration and insurance papers.

Feels better already, doesn't it?


By Matt Platte (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

drill a small hole. fill with expanding squirty foam.

How about this idea?
You drive within the fucking speed limit!

By Donalbain (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink


A camera that only takes a photo when an offence occurs is surely less of a worry than cctv continuously monitoring an area.

However in principle I dont have a problem with speed cameras (from the police state angle), in the same way that I dont have a problem with the police. Sure both cameras and police forces can be abused but that implies we need to be vigilant over what uses they are put to.

Love the idea of IR around the license plate.

What would an ordinary laser pointer do to a CCD? Or one of those high-power pointers? I saw plans in Make magazine for building one that can cut paper using the emitter from a DVD burner.

A Texas judge said the company running a red-light camera was acting illegally because it did not have a private investigator license. On the basis of this ruling, motorists are challenging traffic tickets. New Texas legislation regulating certain electronic legal evidence work is causing problems for robo-cop traffic enforcement. See deails:

In some areas you won't be violating the law if you just create a bright light that prevents the camera from seeing anything useful. So you can set up a laser pointer or a bright LED nearby to shine into the camera.

Matt, this is not going in a healthy direction. I am reminded of why it is that my insurance rates got so much cheaper when I hit 25. Or was it 40. Or something like that.

Here's a better subject for you to blog about. Do rail guns have recoil and if so, where?

sci.physics.research discussion and Naval postgraduate paper on subject referenced by sci.physics discussion but with corrected link.

By Carl Brannen (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

#16: "How about this idea? You drive within the fucking speed limit!"

Guess how many times a camera has cited me? Zero, because I obey traffic laws. I object because of privacy concerns. Presumably you wouldn't want (say) your phone conversations constantly monitored even if you had nothing criminal to hide. It's the principle of the thing.

Carl, I dunno about healthy, but I think it's ok to indulge one's inner reactionary at least on paper from time to time. This is meant as an intellectual exercise (I reiterate that I do not want anyone to illegally damage cameras!) which happens to also bring some attention to an issue which I think merits some consideration via legal means. In any case I'm going to continue to keep the politics to a minimum, with posts like this one kept rare.

Good question about the railgun. Certainly something has to recoil, but fields carry momentum too and so I'm not going to stick my neck out with an answer right away.

"-- Presumably you wouldn't want (say) your phone conversations constantly monitored even if you had nothing criminal to hide. It's the principle of the thing. --"

Right, but when you're on a public road in a two ton motor vehicle going 10 miles above the posted limit and then (and only then) a camera snaps a picture of you... that's somewhat different.

It would be like walking into a mall and shouting, "I'm going to shot Tom in the head with this gun", then waving around a gun, then getting pissed when the cops jump all over you.

You want to speed? Go up and down your driveway at 60. Perfectly legal. Enjoy.

I don't love the idea of traffic cameras, but I love the idea of traffic COPS even less. You're paying a full grown adult tens of thousands of dollars a year to do what a simple mechanical device can do for pennies. And when tax time comes due, you're going to bitch at how outrageous our property taxes are. And when someone breaks into your house and steals your TV, you're going to bitch louder about how "there's never a cop around when you need one". And then you're going to pass a cop with a radar gun out on I-10, wasting his life and your money doing something no one really wants him to do, because cameras are scary.


Oh boy speed cameras...…

so like i told my friend who moved to philly about our speed cameras in montgomery county and he immediately suggested we go get baseball bats. honestly though i think spray paint is a lot better. you can make them sturdy, but no way you have a decent solution to spray paint

By Paul Johnson (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

Carl, your rates got cheaper because you have more to lose, what with paying your own rent and all, having to work, and therefore probably reliant on that car. Even if you did that at 18, i would bet that most 18 year olds who drive are not likely to be doing that and are likely to take bigger risks. I know I have.

Donalbain, I sincerely doubt you drive within the speed limit 100% of the time.

I have never been ticketed or pulled over ever. I am currently 20. I have been in two accidents, neither of which i was at fault for and i still think speed cameras are generally a bad idea.

By Paul Johnson (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

I've seen plans online for a simple tripod-based clamp to hold a high-powered laser pointer. You use the contraption to hold the laser pointer on-target on the camera. Once you don't need the camera blinded anymore, you take the device with you when you leave. Simple, cheap, doesn't leave anything behind.

@Carl and Paul: No, Carl's rates got cheaper because drivers over the age of 25 are statistically much less likely to get into accidents than younger drivers. It's entirely actuarial, and not based on whether you pay your own rent. Instead, the relevant factors are (1) more experience and (2) reduced incidence of testosterone poisoning. Also, by 25 you will have established a track record, and if you haven't had any accidents or moving violations up to that point you are properly considered to be a better risk.

Getting married and having kids can also affect rates, because here the actuarial statistics bear out the "more to lose" concept.

Rates go up again for elderly drivers (certainly by the time you are in your 60s, and perhaps earlier). Again, it's actuarial. The standard explanation here is that your reaction times slow, and often your peripheral vision will be degraded.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 05 Dec 2008 #permalink

@ #16: "How about this idea?
You drive within the fucking speed limit!"

I have no problem with this, but the speed-cams in my neighborhood are causing other problems. The speed limit is 35. The cameras won't actually tag anyone unless they exceed 45.

Why? Because +/- 10mph is the limit of their accuracy. They're that shoddy. I know this; I've worked with traffic radars before.

The *real* problem is that most drivers aren't aware of this, and they're so scared of getting a ticket that they slow down to around 25mph! Traffic is more backed up than ever because of those damned cameras, and it's creating an unnecessary hazard.

I *really* do wish everyone would drive the fucking speed limit, not creep along in the unjustified fear of getting a speeding ticket they don't deserve!


By Roadtripper (not verified) on 05 Dec 2008 #permalink

Here's another way to foil the cameras for the time being, though it might raise suspicions on your vehicle: get a vanity plate with a random permutation of Ds Os and 0s. The way plates are manufactured, it's very hard to tell these three letters apart.
If enough people do this, with similar vehicles, the cameras will never be able to tell who was speeding, but a cop sure as hell could.
On a seven-digit plate, there are 37, or just under 2200 different permutations. You might be able to pull off the same thing with Is and 1s, Bs and 8s, and possibly a few more, though it probably wouldn't work as well.

Speed cameras do not constantly monitor you. They flash if you break the speed limit. So, once again the solution is (say it with me) Drive Below The Fucking Speed Limit!

By Donalbain (not verified) on 05 Dec 2008 #permalink

Well, yes. That will fry the camera. Also, all the passing traffic.

I still don't understand how cameras offend the delicate sensibilities of folks who are more than happy to receive a ticket from a flesh-and-blood "Big Brother" cop at their windows. It's like saying you refuse to buy a movie ticket from the little electronic kiosk at the front of the theater. Or not buying books online because you trust human cashiers over encrypted websites.

It's future shock, I guess, bringing on a looming fear of 1984. But so was the automated assembly line, the GPS signal, and the robot vacuum cleaner. And yet mankind continues to survive and flourish.

How can speed or sidewalk cameras be an invasion of privacy. By walking on a publicly owned sidewalk or driving on a public road you are performing a public act. There is no legal expectation of privacy for acts knowingly done in full view of others and/or in an unambiguously public area.

If it would not be illegal for a human eye to watch you do it then it is not illegal for an electronic eye. Just imagine every camera is a cop on a platform.

Police check points and hidden cop cars also cause sudden deceleration. I would like to see the statistics on accidents in areas with cameras/speed traps compared to those without. My hypothesis is that there is a difference but that it is minuscule.

By Oolon_Colluphid_Dem (not verified) on 11 Dec 2008 #permalink

Zifnab --

If the cameras behave as advertised there is little issue; they only send in a picture when someone is speeding? The camera is properly calibrated? The method of determining if someone is speeding is reliable and doesn't generate false positives? Great, no worries.

But that assumes a lot. CCD camera that transmits photos to a central office when triggered? Trivial to modify it to do general surveillance with no one the wiser. Calibration? Well, if it generates revenue, it's in the better interest of those behind the camera to have them, say, accidentally trigger at 53 instead of 55 -- think of all the increased income! Doubly so if, as stated earlier, the cameras are maintained and billed through commercial entities that are in this for a profit. And false positives, like the scenario where the truck behind you speeds into radar range just when you are nicely centered in frame to get the ticket? Heck, they don't care -- false positives again equal more revenue.

A police officer can at least be talked to and can apply judgment to the situation, and a summons issued can be challenged in court in the event the officer is a little overzealous.

I'd rather deal with the human.

By Horse-Pheathers (not verified) on 20 Dec 2008 #permalink

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