Philly Cops Tried To Disguise An SUV With License Plate Readers As A Google Maps Vehicle

from the can't-spell-'stupid'-with-an-Alphabet dept

Here’s the sort of fun stuff law enforcement gets up to when it thinks no one’s paying attention. It all started with Matt Blaze tweeting out a photo of a rather suspicious-looking Google Maps vehicle.

As anyone can clearly see, a crappy decal was slapped on the window of a huge SUV, presumably in an attempt to disguise the true purpose of the cameras mounted up front, which are high-powered automatic license plate readers.

Blaze also spotted a Pennsylvania State Police parking placard on the dash.

The Pennsylvania State Police quickly denied the vehicle belonged to it. But it did, at least, (sort of) confirm the cameras were license plate readers.

Matt, this is not a PSP vehicle. If this is LPR technology, other agencies and companies might make use of it.

Philadelphia resident/investigative reporter Dustin Slaughter tracked down the vehicle and shot photos of the parking placard, along with the other side of the vehicle, confirming the bogus Google Maps window stickers were on both sides of the vehicle.

The city’s fleet manager denied the vehicle belonged to the State Police. However, he did not clarify which agency the faux Google vehicle belonged to.

“All city vehicles such as police, fire, streets etc.…are registered to the city. Quasi [public] agencies like PPA, Housing Authority, PGW and School District are registered to their respective agencies,” fleet manager Christopher Cocci wrote in an email to Motherboard after reviewing photos of the vehicle.

Google also denied any involvement.

“We can confirm that this is not a Google Maps car, and that we are currently looking into the matter,” Google spokesperson Susan Cadrecha wrote.

Google tends to use vehicles with lower profiles, better gas mileage, and very distinctive branding/camera setups.

A few hours later, another Philadelphia law enforcement agency stepped forward to take credit for the deceptive vehicle.

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.

Well, we have a WHO. What we don’t have is a WHY. Of what possible use was this crappy, little fakeout? Anyone stupid enough to believe a hulking SUV with a city parking permit was a Google Maps vehicle is also too stupid to know what the cameras mounted on it are actually used for. For everyone else above that level, the easiest conclusion to draw is that the Philly police are stupid enough to think this would work. If so, they’ve shorted the wrong set of collective IQ.

A more benign explanation is also possible, though. It could have just been a poorly thought out attempt at a joke. Who sports more cameras and hoovers up more photos than Google’s mapping vehicles? This may have just been a few cops poking fun at themselves, co-opting Big Data’s look for their Big Brother plate scanning: the Google Maps of law enforcement, making sure no obscure side road goes “unmapped.”

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Comments on “Philly Cops Tried To Disguise An SUV With License Plate Readers As A Google Maps Vehicle”

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Anonymous Coward says:

“Google tends to use vehicles with lower profiles, better gas mileage, and very distinctive branding/camera setups. “

Google tries to use cheaper vehicles while the government wastes money on expensive, gas guzzling, vehicles for no reason. That’s what happens when taxpayers are paying for something vs stockholders.

K`Tetch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Actually, you’d be surprised how cheap many of the vehicles are.

A crown vic in police pursuit spec about 5-6 years ago would cost an agency about $15k. I’d guess a pursuit spec Taurus may be 18-20k now. They’re often stripped of the ‘nice stuff’ that pumps up the price, and the margin is in volume.

The impretza’s used by Google, start at $18k btw, for half the power.

K`Tetch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You should foia some of the purchase orders then. They’re less than that. The 2010 MSP vehicle eval indicates they’ve had vehicle bids of $18k ( page 82 [79 indicated])

Meanwhile, you a PD in/around Chicago, and want a new interceptor? It’s $23,291 for the Taurus based one, and $25,555 for the explorer based one, at least according to one dealer, RIGHT NOW. That’s 10k less than IT guy, and 5k less than your figure.

In Missouri, it’s $25k for the regular interceptor, $26k if you want AWD, and a little less if you want the AWD charger or Caprice.

in Washington state it’s $22.4k for the base sedan, but with options and tax it comes to $25,242 for the P2L (FWD)
The SUV, they show as $26k base, and with options, sales tax (8-9%) it comes to $30k delivered.

Of course, if you want deals, Florida has you beat.
Their documents show you could get a 2016 police spec FWD impala for a base price of $19600, a P2L Ford Interceptor for a base of $22k, and the K8A interceptor (AWD explorer) for $25,400.

So either prices have dropped a lot since 2012 (they haven’t) or you’ve been confusing retail costs for retail models, with contract costs for ‘special service’ vehicles negotiated with the states. Of course, not everyone goes through these state contracts, this report from a year ago shows that some departments in Ohio sourced their own vehicles and still saved some money.

So yeah….
Pretty sure my numbers were accurate. Part of the reason is about 8-9 years ago I was looking at getting into the game, like Carbon Motors tried, except I’d have been focusing on high-end traffic patrol vehicles, like the Volvo70R’s I spent time in when doing accident investigation work with the UK police.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Not only that, but the Crown Vics usually went through a MAJOR retrofit after being purchased. Wide tires, extra stuff under the hood, security bars between back/front etc.

That said, they used a chain belt instead of the fabric/rubber ones, and had reinforced roll cages. They’re safer than a ’70s Volvo. The extras that were included in a Crown Vic are things that would have been great on any car, and yet they didn’t inflate the price that much (probably because all the “luxury” items were stripped out).

K`Tetch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

the tires and stuff under the hood were generally in the car when bought. They’re not regular models that are then converted, they’re purpose-built models (called ‘special service’ for those designed for use in pursuits) with their own model codes and everything.

One of the best resources for starting on understanding police vehicles is the MSP police vehicle evaluations. I wish they’d add in a ‘general sale’ version in too though, so at least with the performance tests, you can appreciate the differences.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

No but that shouldn’t prevent an argument that:
1. There is a deliberate attempt to cause confusion in the marketplace.
2. There brand is subjected to dilution due to such confusion.
3. There brand is subjected to harm by the association and implication that the use of the brand was authorized.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Philly would just claim that they put this up because they are fans of Google Maps.

Or it is free advertising for Google.

Or it was some kind of innocent, harmless mistake. Whoever did it, did not do it in an official capacity. They would have removed it anyway, as soon as they got caught — which is now.

And who knows what other crazy lies they would make up.

Baron von Robber says:

Us Tracking Them Tracking Us

If I had the money I would so start up a company that offered tracking services of government vehicles using citizen phones that recorded lic plates as they drove with GPS on.

Then a database that reads the plate, ties to a known record of what that vehicle was and a history of where it’s been. The kicker. That database’s history would match that of the government vehicle. They keep theirs for 30 days? So would mine. 🙂

And available to all. And why not. We paid for our vehicles as well as paying for theirs with our taxes.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Us Tracking Them Tracking Us

Mass tracking is inevitable. Private companies have these databases already. Roll down a residential street at dinner time and now you have identified the plates to home addresses. Look up the addresses in public records, now you have full names and you can track people everywhere.

SirWired (profile) says:

It's not that bad of a disguise

Yes, compared to what the “real thing” looks like, a decal on the window isn’t very close.

But how many people really know what a Google Maps car looks like? I doubt many folks give much thought to what sort of equipment is needed to produce the Street View pictures.

I’m not saying the disguise was a good idea, but if it were, I don’t see that decal as a pointless and insulting one.

btr1701 (profile) says:


This article is very messily written, which makes figuring out the facts difficult.

First, there’s the inclusion of ridiculous hyperbole, which seems to be a requirement for all media these days:

“…an attempt to disguise the true purpose of the
cameras mounted up front, which are high-powered
automatic license plate readers.”

So what exactly is the difference between a high-powered LPR and a low- or medium-powered LPR? What function does “high-powered” serve here other than to increase the drama factor of the article?

Then we’re told this:

“Blaze also spotted a Pennsylvania State Police parking
placard on the dash.”

Then this:

“The city’s fleet manager denied the vehicle belonged
to the State Police.”

If the placard said state police, why would you go to the *city*’s fleet manager to track it down. Wouldn’t you make inquiries with the state?

And in the end, it turns out that the vehicle was a city vehicle after all, which makes the initial claim that it had a state police placard on the dash suspect.

Then there are the assumptions the author makes that are unwarranted. In criticizing the attempt to disguise an SUV, we get this:

“Google tends to use vehicles with lower profiles,
better gas mileage, and very distinctive
branding/camera setups. Anyone stupid enough to believe
a hulking SUV with a city parking permit was a Google
Maps vehicle…”

Here a clue to the author: not everyone is as immersed in the tech world as you are and don’t know (or care) what kind of vehicles Google uses, so an average Joe or Jane who sees an SUV on street with a Google logo on the side is not “stupid” for not realizing that’s not the type of vehicle Google employs.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Smash the car with a baseball bat and see who then
> complains.

Seems like a rather radical and self-defeating way of proving your point, since no matter who complains (or even if no one complains), you’ve committed a crime, possibly a felony.

But hey, you can sit in your cell with a smug look on your face the whole time, ’cause you sure showed them, didtcha?

bobmorning (profile) says:

PA is going all in with the ALPR technology

I live in PA, this state is a bit screwed up.

Here is a news story to support this comment:

They are foregoing the registration stickers on the license plates starting in 2017 as they are going to use the money saved to purchase more ALPR scanners and technology so they can flag you for expired registration via the ALPR database lookup in real time.

Great now every po-dunk town in PA with a police force will want this technology so they have a reason to pull you over.

Sometimes technology sucks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: PA is going all in with the ALPR technology

I’m presuming this is probably in response to forgery? I know that sticker forgery for registration safety and emissions inspection have been on the rise in other states due to progressively more severe vehicle fees.

One of the problems here, is that the number of people getting fined and locked up is going to go WAY up. The thing about ALPR, is that not requiring user intervention the number of records it can process is much higher. 100% compliance probably sounds like a good thing, until you really consider how many people are actually out of compliance at some point during their lifetime.

This is going to come back and bite them in the ass. I know that MD already has a problem will civil disobedience and speed trap cameras. (They get regularly vandalized) I wonder how the citizens of PA are going to react when pretty much everyone has had their ass chapped courtesy of ALPR’s?

Anonymous Coward says:

The hulking SUV is reminiscent of America’s Iraq occupation. Bringing in fleets of odd-looking US-made black-painted vehicles that no locals had ever seen before, and then apparently thinking that slapping on Iraqi license plates and dark tinted windows would hide the fact that foreign Blackwater mercenaries were stuffed inside.

To top it off, they drove through town in large convoys, ran red lights, ran over pedestrians, and never stopped when they got into accidents.

And they wondered why people were always shooting at them.

IPR Fundamentalist says:

Trademark violation is a serious crime, and they clearly violated Google’s trademark here. This should be seriously punished.

I think $100,000 statutory damages is a just punishment – for each license plate captured by the vehicle while the decal was on the vehicle. Courts should presume the decal was on the vehicle any time a license plate was captured, unless defendant can prove otherwise.

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