Deterring Auto Theft: Time For a Public Hotlist?

Would making details of motor-vehicle thefts readily available to the public have any impact on auto theft? My gut feeling is that it just might.

Consider: Here in Saint Paul, a motor vehicle is stolen roughly every four-and-a-half hours – right about five-and-a-half thefts per day. The majority of stolen vehicles recovered are done so by law enforcement, with no public involvement (aside from the owner reporting it stolen, of course).

As it stands, if a member of the public thinks they’ve identified a stolen vehicle, at worst they have to call the police and have officers respond, which is a waste of resources. The best-case scenario, you call the police and social-engineer them into telling you if the vehicle is reported stolen; while this can certainly be effective, it’s still labor-intensive, and I have to admit I’m not positive about the absolute legality of this ploy. (Top tip: It helps if you use the right lingo – a license plate is a “tag”, in police parlance, and you want it checked against the “hot sheet”, a regularly-updated list of vehicles reported stolen.)

That system was workable in the 1990s, but here in the 21st Century, surely we can do better?

I’m no lawyer, but I don’t think there’s a legal barrier to the disclosure of “hot sheet” information in most states; such a list is basically public information, and it’s not invasive of anyone’s privacy. If it was disseminated online, in real time, on a regional or statewide basis, the ability to quickly check a suspicious vehicle out online would, IMO, cut down on useless calls-for-service to the police; it could also lead to more (and quicker) recoveries. More importantly, though, I suspect that knowing that anyone could figure out a vehicle was stolen might just reduce auto theft in the first place.

I mean, seriously, if agencies made hot-sheet info available to the public in real-time, APIs – and iPhone apps – would follow. (I’m 100% positive a license-plate recognition app could be written for the iPhone, and I’m equally sure that, could you actually ID stolen vehicles with your phone, someone would, too.) It’s citizen-powered community policing meets crowdsourcing meets 21st-century technology. What’s not to like?

It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work.

Published in: Geekiness, General, Security | on July 27th, 2009| Comments Off on Deterring Auto Theft: Time For a Public Hotlist?

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