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Newsgroups: comp.risks
X-issue: 13.81
Date: Sat, 19 Sep 92 16:49:26 -0700
From: karn@servo.Qualcomm.COM (Phil Karn)
Subject: A simpler risk of computerized warrant systems

There's another risk associated with these new computerized warrant systems, at
least when they're installed in police cars where they can be used by the

An exhibit at the San Diego Computer Fair features a police car equipped with a
new MDT (Mobile Data Terminal). They're about a year old, and are now in just
about every marked San Diego police car.  It consists of a specialized keyboard
and display mounted to the right of the driver.  It allows the user to run
license plates and drivers licenses, check for warrants, etc. The system also
allows for routine communications, such as checking in and out of service,
car-to-car chatting, etc.  It can be used for emergency communications such as
ordering ambulances, but the officer said that voice was usually quicker for
such things.  There is, however, a prominent button labeled "EMERGENCY".

The equipment was on a swivel mount so it can be used by anyone in the front
seat. When I saw it, it was turned to the left so the driver could use it.  I
asked the officer demonstrating the system whether there was any official
policy on the driver's use of the terminal while in motion. He said the only
policy so far was to "use the minimum number of keystrokes necessary" while in
motion. And, he added with a wry smile, if you have an accident while using it,
then by definition you've just exceeded the minimum number of keystrokes
necessary.  When I pressed him a little further, he admitted to having had a
few close calls already.

Because the system is so fast and easy to use, the officers run plates with it
much more often than when they had to do it by voice.  So instead of calling in
a request only when they really suspect somebody (e.g., during a stop), they
like to drive around semi-continuously punching in license plate numbers.
Car-to-car chatting also seems to be popular. Although things will probably
improve as the novelty of the system wears off, the safety risk here should be
fairly obvious.

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