Philly PD Releases One Document About Its Fake Google Car: The Journalist's Own Open Records Request Email

from the a-twist-in-the-fabric-of-transparency-where-your-request-becomes-a-loop dept

Earlier this year, computer science professor and cryptography expert Matt Blaze happened across a Pennsylvania state-owned vehicle attempting to d/b/a a Google Street View… um, SUV. Taking that info, local reporter Dustin Slaughter dug deeper into the origins of that fake Google Street View vehicle.

Multiple state agencies were contacted by Motherboard for clarification, but the site only received the normal obstruction government officials provide when there's no logical explanation for a thing that has happened under their purview.

The Pennsylvania State Police denied the vehicle belonged to it, suggesting it might belong to a different agency. The placard in the window identified it as state vehicle whose use was governed by the state's fleet manager, who suggested it was actually a city vehicle, but wouldn't narrow down which city agency the vehicle belonged to.

Google denied any involvement, surprising no one, as it was perfectly clear the SUV looked nothing like the tiny, fuel-efficient vehicles Google normally uses -- which are covered from bumper-to-bumper with Google branding, rather than just a couple of badly-printed window stickers.

After some more phone/email tag, the Philly Police Department finally stepped up and admitted the vehicle was theirs, and that it did not condone the sort of thing it hadn't prevented from happening.

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.”

[lol. "Unmarked."]

Motherboard turned to the next weapon in its arsenal: a public records request. It sent one to the Philly Police Department, hoping to find out how this sort of Google trade dress-up might have happened. The Philly PD rooted around in its files and found one responsive document it was willing to release.

On Tuesday, and after several delays, the police department provided access to one document: The original email reporter Dustin Slaughter had sent asking the agency for comment.

In addition to giving Motherboard a copy of a document it already had, the Philly PD suggested there were other documents related to its faux-Googling, but that it wouldn't be releasing those.

One of the explanations cited for withholding those apparent emails was that they reflect the “internal predecisional deliberations of an agency, its members, employees or officials,” which are protected from release under the Pennsylvania Right-To-Know Act.

Reading between the lines of the second-hand copy of Dustin Slaughter's original email and the response letter accompanying it, Joseph Cox of Motherboard was able to obtain an inadvertent confession that no one had approved the use of Google stickers on police vehicles and that this disguise fell outside of existing PD guidelines. However, this information -- unofficially released in the PD's denial of additional documents -- does little more than confirm the statement given to it by the department a couple of months ago.

As it stands now, all Motherboard has is a copy of its own public records request, albeit one that has been processed by the government's favorite document processing service, Dutch Angle Scanning.

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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 8 Jul 2016 @ 1:18pm

    That's a fantastic way to screw any requester while still complying with the law! If they used all that energy to actually do their job decently..

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

  • icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 8 Jul 2016 @ 1:21pm

    Gotta give 'em credit for creative passive-aggressiveness, at the very least...

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2016 @ 1:46pm

    With how much push back there seems to be by every level of government there seems to be with not wanting to fulfill requests, I'm amazed the FOIA ever actually got passed.

    But knowing congress, they probably exempted themselves or something. Or they just knew they'd be able to pull all these shenanigans.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2016 @ 8:07pm


    If you have nothing to release, you have nothing to fear.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Jul 2016 @ 7:24am

    Is there a trademark case here?

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

  • icon
    MatsSvensson (profile), 9 Jul 2016 @ 8:08am


    Q.) Request for definition of unknown designation: "d/b/a".
    Please respond in standard human parsable codeform of type "English/txt"

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Jul 2016 @ 5:40pm

    I wish I could be surprised by this, but I suspect this just shows an underlying trend towards universal surveillance.

    The video wars have begun and the more footage you have, the easier it is to find a crime on both sides of the blue line. 2 years until we have government run drones in high crime areas?

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

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