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AZ Tech Beat | January 23, 2018

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Cacti cameras cause thorny debate

Cacti cameras cause thorny debate
Chloe Nordquist

Next time you drive through Paradise Valley, you may want to pay closer attention to the cacti.

Paradise Valley residents began to notice that artificial cacti normally used to conceal cell phone towers were displaying new license plate readers last week, as reported by Fox 10 Phoenix. The “cact-eyes” began to cause a stir over privacy across local news stations.

For anyone driving by, the hidden surveillance cameras and artificial cacti would simply blend into the desert landscape.

cacti crop H162-Larson 128th & Larkspur-rfile

Fake cell tower. Photo courtesy of Larson Camouflage

City officials have been in the process of installing 11 license plate cameras throughout Paradise Valley. Four of these will be placed inside the fake vegetation, while the rest will be put on traffic signals.

“Its not uncommon for us to use cacti or other designs to try to get the technology to blend in whether it’s a cell phone tower or an electricity box,” Paradise Valley Town Manager Kevin Burke said. “We are putting them in so you aren’t looking at an ugly pole.”

Larson Camouflage in Tucson makes the artificial plants that are now used at thousands of camouflaged sites worldwide, including Paradise Valley.

Buyers can even get creative with their cacti. The price for one cactus ranges from 15 to 40 thousand dollars, depending on diameter and how many arms there are.

“We do some cacti that have no arms, and some that have three arms,” President of Larson Camouflage Andrew Messing said. “The pricing is predicated on the amount of square footage that is being used.”

While the majority of Larson’s customers are wireless carrier companies who use them for cell towers, they can be used for other things. “We’ve had some projects here where cacti have been used to disguise meters,” Messing said.

However, using them as a means to disguise license plate cameras was new to Messing.

“We didn’t know,” Messing said. “Our core business is supplying all these different types of artificial trees for cell towers.”

Five of the 11 license plate cameras have been installed throughout the city so far.

The cameras will be used to check license plate numbers that can then be matched with a database of stolen and wanted vehicles. Similar technology has already been installed and activated in police vehicles.

“About two years ago there was a citizen committee of public safety and they identified a number of concerns for better enforcement and the use of technology as a law enforcement tool,” Burke said. The plate readers are part of this goal.

Dove Mountain Cacti 011

Photo courtesy of Larson Camouflage. Cactus at Dove Mountain

Recently, the Town Council in Paradise Valley approved $2.3 million last year for technological improvements in the police department.

In the case of a stolen vehicle or burglary, the plate readers will help officials piece together and solve crimes.

“The data can only be used for law enforcement purposes,” Burke confirmed. Not every license plate that the readers take a photo of will be ran. “We have a database of license plates that we are looking for,” Burke said.

The police department pulls a hot list from the Department of Public Safety four times a day that has a statewide list of cars to be on the lookout for.

Under state law, license plate data will be purged from the system after six months, unless it is part of an active investigation.

City officials will be putting signage on the fake cacti cameras at some point before they are put in use.

In case you are cruising through cacti camera country, here is where they are located:

1. N. 40th St. south of E. Stanford Dr. | Northbound – 1 lane in faux cactus on east shoulder
2. E. Stanford Dr. x N. 40th St. | Westbound – 1 lane in faux cactus in roundabout | Northbound – 1 lane in faux cactus in roundabout
3. E. Stanford Dr. x N. 32nd St. | Eastbound – 1 lane in faux cactus on south shoulder

Wave hello!

Cacti photos courtesy of Larson Camouflage

Read more about Arizona cities adopting tech at AZ Tech Beat