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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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 8:29am

    Without the disguise no one would have even noticed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 8:43am

      Re:

      Agreed. Not much of a 'disguise'. We're used to seeing vehicles with all sorts of weird stuff on them, especially law enforcement ones.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 8:42am

    "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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      K`Tetch (profile), 13 May 2016 @ 8:52am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        I.T. Guy, 13 May 2016 @ 9:07am

        Re: Re:

        Sorry K but the crown vic p71 was around 24,000. The interceptor Taurus is about 33,000. :)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        John Law, 13 May 2016 @ 9:21am

        Re: Re:

        Whoever you work for might want to drug test you. In 2012, the base Taurus used for the police interceptor model cost $28,322, and that was BEFORE $22,000 worth of additional equipment was added to fully outfit it as a cruiser. Crown Vickys police interceptors ran around $24,000, from Ford.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          K`Tetch (profile), 13 May 2016 @ 10:10am

          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 (http://www.michigan.gov/documents/msp/MSP_2012VehicleTestBook_Web_PDF_375491_7.pdf 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.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 9:37am

        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).

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          K`Tetch (profile), 13 May 2016 @ 10:15am

          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.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 8:44am

    I would love to see Google sue the city of Philly for trademark infringement!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Baron von Robber, 13 May 2016 @ 8:55am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 9:05am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        btr1701 (profile), 13 May 2016 @ 3:13pm

        Re: Re: Us Tracking Them Tracking Us

        > Roll down a residential street at dinner time and now you
        > have identified the plates to home addresses.

        One of the reasons I keep my car closed up in my garage whenever I'm home.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 4:10pm

          Re: Re: Re: Us Tracking Them Tracking Us

          I hope the next battle in this war of attrition doesn't involve you wrapping yourself in plastic to avoid passive DNA collection.

          It's fun for a while but future generations will wonder why we didn't pass better law.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 13 May 2016 @ 9:07am

    Dear Philly PD

    If you're not doing anything wrong, then you've got nothing to hide.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    SirWired (profile), 13 May 2016 @ 9:36am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    afn29129 (profile), 13 May 2016 @ 9:56am

    More info Mr Dustin Slaughter if you please.

    Photos of the License-plate and VIN plate (if visible thru the front glass) would of been nice, with make and model as well.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    btr1701 (profile), 13 May 2016 @ 11:43am

    Messy

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 12:20pm

    Police deny these vehicles belong to them?

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

    Then google can sue them for copyright infringement and trademark stuff....bankrupt the bastards for shits n giggles.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      btr1701 (profile), 13 May 2016 @ 3:08pm

      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?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 12:21pm

    Actually if the police say they don't own those vehicles then they've STOLEN them from someone.


    Someone needs to go claim that car as their own....then the police are either exposed as lying gutterscum or they have to give the car away....win-win

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    bobmorning (profile), 13 May 2016 @ 12:30pm

    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:

    http://www.wpxi.com/news/vehicle-registration-stickers-will-be-a-thing-of-the-past-in-pa/745 63459

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 May 2016 @ 9:32am

      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?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 2:26pm

    A joke?

    No way! Police don't have a sense of humor.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 3:26pm

    Philly cops tried to disguise an SUV with surveillance equipment on it as an SUV with surveillance equipment on it owned by a surveillance company.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 4:38pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    IPR Fundamentalist, 13 May 2016 @ 6:57pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 May 2016 @ 12:01am

    Police trying to get a one-up at Google's expense? Funny, I would've thought that Whatever would make an appearance. Guess he probably passed out jizzing himself or something.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 May 2016 @ 2:08pm

    Will Google sue?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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