MANALAPAN, Fla. - One of the nation's richest towns has decided to digitally record the license plate of every car that meanders through its small stretch of mansions on the Palm Beach County, Fla., coast and to run an automatic background check on each driver.
Strategically placed cameras will take infrared photos that record a driver's tag number. Software will automatically run the numbers through law enforcement databases and alert a 911 dispatcher if the driver is in a stolen car or is the subject of a "be on the lookout" warning.
If there's a robbery, police will be able to comb records to determine who drove through town on a given afternoon or evening. Next to the tag number, police will have a picture of the driver, taken with another set of cameras, upgraded versions of the standard surveillance cameras already in place.
Manalapan's town council authorized $60,000 in security upgrades recently after three burglaries last winter robbed residents of $400,000 in jewelry. The town averages two or three burglaries per year and residents demanded a swift response, said Town Manager Gregory Dunham. The 2000 Census listed Manalapan among the nation's richest cities, with two out of every three homes worth more than $500,000.
Enter the PIPS Technology camera, developed in England with a large operation in Knoxville, Tenn. PIPS is among several companies that claim their machines can capture license plate digits from cars speeding faster than 100 mph through rain, sleet, snow, darkness or fog.
Manalapan is the second Florida city that will put the PIPS equipment on a public road. PIPS Vice President Craig Cantrell said the town of Palm Beach has been testing it since December.
England's bobbies have been more aggressive, mounting plate cameras on patrol cars to scan for outlaws since the 1990s. Experts say bold and simple European tags are easier for a camera to interpret than America's busy and varied tags. The PIPS system, for example, has trouble distinguishing between states because that information might be printed lightly or not at all on the tag.
"It is a very daunting task to teach a machine to recognize numbers," said Lee J. Nelson, principal systems consultant for Electro-Optical Technologies Inc., in Falls Church, Va.
Police Chief Clay Walker said his dispatchers will look at the plate numbers that trigger their alarm system to make sure they match the corresponding photos of the cars before sending police after them.
They had better be right. Agencies around the country have been forced to offer sheepish apologies after misreading license plates and chasing down innocent people.
Walker says that if all goes well with the first phase - placing two cameras on a quiet road that leads to the island's "point" neighborhood - he'll put a camera directly on the A1A highway, so that everyone who passes through the busy area will be recorded.
It's one of the more extreme examples of how technology - be it a home computer, a SunPass transponder or a cell phone - is changing the nature of personal privacy. The technology planned for Manalapan has been in development for decades but is just emerging as a security tool in this country.
SunPass has been using license plate cameras since 1999 to ensure that people pay turnpike tolls. Miami International Airport began using them in November to make sure people don't underpay for long-term parking.
Miami-Dade County police are looking into using the technology but could not provide details about their plans.
"Courts have ruled that in a public area, you have no expectation of privacy," said Walker, one of 11 sworn officers who protects Manalapan's 321 residents.
Walker is no J. Edgar Hoover. He has concerns about the freedoms Americans gave up with the passage of the USA Patriot Act. He says that Manalapan's data will be destroyed every three months, and that his officers are sensitive to concerns about possible discrimination.
Still, civil libertarians worry about the potential to put innocent drivers in an electronic lineup just because they happen to drive along the beach.
Maria Laneve, 29, a local bartender, said, "It's just more of the Big Brother act."