Philly Police Admit They Disguised a Spy Truck as a Google Streetview Car
The vehicle in question. Image: Dustin Slaughter
The Philadelphia Police Department admitted today that a mysterious unmarked license plate surveillance truck disguised as a Google Maps vehicle, which Motherboard first reported on this morning, is its own.
In an emailed statement, a department spokesperson confirmed:
"We have been informed that this unmarked vehicle belongs to the police department; however, the placing of any particular decal on the vehicle was not approved through any chain of command. With that being said, once this was brought to our attention, it was ordered that the decals be removed immediately."
The spokesperson also claimed that an inquiry is forthcoming.
When reached for comment yesterday, Google confirmed it is investigating the unauthorized use of its Google Maps logo. The spokeswoman we reached suggested that the company might have more to say at a later time.
Brandon Worf, who for three years worked at Busch and Associates, a sales group that specializes in public safety technology, described the ALPR gear installed on the vehicle as "scary efficient" after reviewing yesterday's photos.
Worf says that this particular model, called the ELSAG MPH-900, "is based on the use of infrared cameras to find plate numbers and letters via temperature differentials between those characters and the surrounding background through optical character recognition."
The cameras are able to read and process "several plates simultaneously" and "in a fraction of a second."
All plates swept up in such a dragnet fashion "are logged with the time/date of the read, GPS latitude/longitude coordinates of where the read occurred, and a photo of the plate and surrounding vehicle," he added.
ALPR has a broad range of applications, including drug interdiction, collection of unpaid taxes and fees, AMBER alert missions, and recovering stolen cars. The question remains: why disguise the technology—and so poorly?
"For one, I would think it's highly illegal to have Google's markings on there, but that's another issue entirely," Worf said. "But it boils down to the fact that most people at first glance wouldn't recognize an ALPR system if they saw it, and for those that do, they likely wouldn't know what Google would be doing with one.
"Frankly, what I don't get is why they felt a need to hide something like this. It certainly makes one question the motive for doing so," he added.
"It's certainly concerning if the city of Philadelphia is running mass surveillance and going out of its way to mislead people," said Dave Maass, a former journalist and researcher at the nonprofit advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Maass speculated that the disguised unit may have been part of a "targeted" investigation. But he was quick to point out that there really is no such thing when it comes to police using ALPR.
As for the department's unauthorized use of Google's logo?
"If I were Google, I would be seriously rankled over the use of their logo to hide surveillance," he said.