Anyone who has ever tramped through a dim, Escher-esque parking garage in search of a "lost" automobile might welcome an abracadabra technology that could help locate it.
But what if that magic involved an array of 24/7 surveillance cameras and was also available to police and auto repossessers? What if it could be tapped by jilted lovers, or that angry guy you accidentally cut off in traffic? Would the convenience be worth the loss of privacy?
Those are some of the questions civil libertarians and others are asking as technology capable of spying on motorists and pedestrians is converted to widespread commercial use.
Santa Monica Place recently unveiled the nation's first camera-based "Find Your Car" system. Shoppers who have lost track of their vehicle amid a maze of concrete ramps and angled stripes can simply punch their license plate number into a kiosk touch screen, which then displays a photo of the car and its location.
In Sacramento, the Police Department and Arden Fair Mall partnered to install license plate readers on mall security vehicles. The vehicles roam parking lots and garages in search of "hot list" vehicles provided by the state Department of Justice. If a car with a "hot" plate is spotted, mall security guards view closed-circuit TV footage to locate the vehicle's driver and alert police.
To date, the scans have helped police recover 44 stolen vehicles and arrest 38 individuals, according to mall security manager Steve Reed.
Both shopping centers are owned by the U.S. mall giant Macerich Co., which extols the surveillance systems' ability to locate lost and stolen cars. However, some wonder whether the convenience of such systems justifies their intrusive nature.
Under U.S. law, the entity taking the video owns it and can largely use or share it however it likes as long as the video is taken in public. There is, however, a difference between being allowed to share and being required to share. Police do have the power to compel the owner of the video to share it, usually through a subpoena.
"What should give people pause is that this technology is advancing upon us without anyone having chosen it," said Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, which studies national security issues. "We have not decided as a society or as individuals that we want this convenience. It is being thrust upon us."
The car finder is just one of many license plate imaging and facial-recognition devices that have proliferated in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, popping up in airports, border crossing stations, tollways and police cruisers.
Developed by New York-based Park Assist, the Santa Monica Place system goes beyond programs found at the Grove and Westfield Century City shopping centers, where electronic billboards alert shoppers to packed parking aisles and shepherd them to vacant spaces.
In addition to featuring red and green lights and signs showing the number of available spaces by level, Park Assist's system offers "Find Your Car" kiosks that allow drivers to key in their plate number — or just the first few characters — on a screen to bring up a photo of a vehicle and a description of its location.
The system, which uses a network of cameras and a central computer, "has proven so far to be a big assist," said Doug Roscoe, senior manager of Santa Monica Place. "We don't have close to as many direct assists." In mall security parlance, "direct assists" refer to occasions when a security person drives a frantic shopper around in an electric cart to find a vehicle.
Macerich paid to install the system in the center's two city-owned parking garages, which have a total of 2,000 spaces. At Arden Fair Mall, the license plate scanning technology was covered by $100,000 in grants from the federal Department of Homeland Security, Reed said.
Across the country, more businesses and government agencies are using technology to collect personal information on consumers. Privacy concerns arise if the information is saved for a long time and shared, experts say.
"What if a divorce attorney came and asked who was in the mall? Or someone looking to repossess vehicles for past nonpayment?" said Chris Calabrese, the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative counsel in Washington. "The unintended consequences can be huge."
Park Assist said its technology is indeed an effective tool for high-risk sites such as government buildings and airports. Although the Santa Monica Place information is for internal use, Roscoe said the mall would share it if the Santa Monica Police Department ever asked.
Like any new technology, the system is bound to have a few bugs — both technical and human.
At Santa Monica Place recently, the "Find Your Car" system did not recognize the license plate numbers of some cars parked near the main-floor kiosk. Also, one driver who had recently purchased her car and did not yet have plates was out of luck.
There was also another weakness in the system for those who were searching for a lost car.
Andrea Minnich of San Pedro approached a kiosk but then realized she had forgotten more than where she parked.
"It might help if I knew my license plate offhand, but I don't," she said.
To Holly DiFonzo, 30, of Chatsworth, the system seemed "pretty cool," although she acknowledged a bit of Big Brother unease. "If I had an ex-boyfriend who I didn't want to find me, that could be a concern," she said.
DiFonzo noted that there were alternatives to the mall's car finder, such as "find my car apps" on smart phones.
The system can help alleviate "the most frustrating aspect of shopping," said Jeff Becker, a vice president with Amano McGann, a Minneapolis company that develops custom software for parking. Amano McGann first saw the Park Assist technology at a parking conference in Amsterdam; last March it became the exclusive distributor of the new system in the United States.
According to a survey by National Car Parks Ltd., Britain's largest parking lot operator, 44% of drivers had at some point forgotten where they parked.
System developers say consumers are more likely to return to shopping centers if they don't have to worry about parking hassles. Park Assist says its systems typically lead to a 3% to 5% increase in customer visits.
"We've seen fairly overwhelming demand globally," said Richard Joffe, co-founder and co-chief executive of Park Assist. He said furniture seller Ikea plans to roll out the system in Europe, beginning with stores in the Netherlands. In Australia, customers include shopping malls and the Brisbane Airport.
Park Assist has developed even newer technology with Amano McGann to better balance customer service with privacy concerns. With that system, which Joffe said would be installed in a few months at a major shopping mall a few miles from Santa Monica, a customer will be able to feed a parking stub into a machine that will then bring up the vehicle's location.
For Minnich, the shopper who didn't know her license plate number, that upgrade might be helpful. As she hunted for her car at Santa Monica Place, privacy meant little.
"If I was somebody famous and worried about my personal security, I would be concerned," she said. "Since I'm basically nobody, I'm not too concerned."