Enter the maze

Will they take the bait?

a computer key labelled with a heart

Ben Stephenson of the University of Calgary tells us about a surprise that’s waiting for car thieves

Do you ever find yourself lost and wondering where you are? Technology can help you find yourself. Global Positioning Systems are becoming an increasingly important part of our lives, with widespread commercial, military and civilian applications. After all, it’s useful knowing where you are and which way to go in order to reach your destination, whether you are driving through a busy city or hiking through the countryside.

Law enforcement agencies all over the world are also putting GPS to work to combat auto theft. Every year, over a million cars are stolen in North America. While some cars are simply taken for a joy ride, many of these stolen cars are used to commit more crimes. As a result, taking steps to prevent car theft helps reduce the overall crime rate, making communities nicer, safer, places to live.

Thanks to GPS, police forces in Canada and the US now have another tool at their disposal to catch these crooks. Bait cars are police vehicles that are designed to be stolen. To the casual observer, bait cars look just like every other car in a parking lot. But these cars are anything but ordinary, containing more high-tech gadgets than a teenager’s bedroom.

Sooner or later a thief steals the bait car, and that’s when the fun begins. While the thief is busy driving away, congratulating himself on his nefarious skills, the bait car’s computer is busy too. It’s feeding signals that it receives from satellites orbiting 12,500 miles overhead into its GPS system so that it can determine its current location and speed. The bait car’s computer is also making a call to the police command centre so that officers know that it has been stolen. At the same time, the bait car’s computer is using hidden cameras and microphones to record the criminals as they drive, and sending this information to the police so that they can see how many suspects are in the vehicle, and what kinds of weapons they are carrying.

Using the GPS tracking data, police officers move in and stop the stolen bait car. What if the suspects try to flee? No problem. The bait car’s computer also knows how to receive and respond to instructions from the police command centre. If the thieves try to run then the police can send a message to the car which forces it to slow down and lock its doors, trapping the thieves inside. This avoids a dangerous high-speed chase, which is good for everyone’s safety, including the thieves.

So anyone inclined to steal a car should remember that not only are they ruining someone else’s day, but they could also quickly find themselves in front of a judge and jury, watching a video recording of their illegal deeds. Given that evidence, a verdict of ‘not guilty’ seems unlikely.