Big Brother is watching as you leave the Sky Harbor International Airport parking lot. This is not fiction. It's fact.

But why?
High-flying speculation over that question has been circling the airport parking lot for some time now, ever since Sky Harbor inaugurated a practice that smacked of something right out of 1984: Before allowing any driver to pay parking fees, cashiers are required to punch the car's license-plate number into a computer. Just another way for Big Brother (or Big Sister) to keep track of your comings and goings?

Because cashiers were unable (or unwilling) to provide any satisfactory answers about the license-plate checking-at best, quizzical drivers received a cryptic reply about Ôinventory"Ïpuzzled paranoiacs hatched a number of theories of their own.

According to whom you believed, the city was secretly using the airport toll booths to a) find stolen cars, b) nab scofflaws with outstanding warrants, or c) identify drug traffickers by spotting frequent airport users.

When fancy TV monitors entered the equation last year (before that, cashiers had to walk around to the back of each car), theorists really had a field day. Surely, some kind of sinister surveillance was afoot to warrant such expense. Fretted one worrywart, "This is spooky. Why are `they' so interested at how often I go to the airport?"

In reality, "they" is Systems Parking, a company that operates parking lots across the country. Jerry Osborn, manager of the Phoenix airport lot, acknowledges that various rumors have been flying around. But he says the license-checking procedure is simply a "revenue control system" designed to determine lost-ticket fees-and, not so incidentally, to help keep parking lot customers honest. Big problems, both, says Osborn.

Here's how it works: Each night, when the lots are nearly empty, license-plate numbers of all remaining cars are entered into a computer. According to Osborn, that information comes in handy when a customer loses a ticket, particularly when the customer swears he's only been parked an hour when the computer proves he's actually been there a week.

Because all license plates are checked against the computer (even if the driver hasn't lost his ticket), the system also identifies cheaters who attempt to pay less by using tickets stolen from other cars.

Osborn theorizes that uninformed employees may have fostered some of the more crackpot stories generated by the license-plate checking. "It's an efficient system, certainlyÏbut not that exciting," he says, discounting the wild stories that link his parking lot to various crime-busting operations.

"We're not here for any of that stuff," he says with a laugh. "We leave that up to the proper authorities."
Whoever "they" are.

ÔThis is spooky. Why are `they' so interested at how often I go to the airport?"

Uninformed employees may have fostered some of the more crackpot stories.

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