Philly PD Admits Its SUV Was Masked as Google Maps Vehicle

SUV decked out with technology to spy on drivers (and fake Google decal)
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted May 13, 2016 1:40 PM CDT
Philly PD Admits Its SUV Was Masked as Google Maps Vehicle
Screenshot of tweet that busted the spy vehicle.   (Matt Blaze, via Twitter)

The Philly PD has a "mystery" on its hands, and it involves one of its own vehicles. On Wednesday, a University of Pennsylvania professor spotted an SUV near the Philadelphia Convention Center, souped up with two high-tech license-plate readers and a placard linking it to the Pennsylvania State Police—but with a Google Maps decal smacked onto its window, reports. "WTF?" Matt Blaze tweeted with a picture of the strangely camouflaged vehicle, which the Philadelphia Police Department did confirm Thursday was part of its fleet. "However, the placing of any particular decal on the vehicle was not approved through any chain of command," a department spokesperson said in an emailed statement to Motherboard. The rep adds the decals were ordered to be taken down ASAP and that an investigation was launched.

What some are saying is worrisome is the fact that these Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs)—which law enforcement can use for everything from tracking down stolen cars to following up on AMBER Alerts—are able to take in thousands of plate images per minute, basically enabling law enforcement to spy on drivers without warrants. "It's certainly concerning if the city of Philadelphia is running mass surveillance and going out of its way to mislead people," Dave Maass, a researcher with the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, tells Motherboard. Gizmodo marvels at the apparently backfired scheme to cover up the SUV's real mission, noting that the Google Maps sticker "simply looked too handmade." Meanwhile, a Google rep tells Motherboard it is also looking into the matter. "If I were Google, I would be seriously rankled over the use of their logo to hide surveillance," Maass says. (The feds are probably tracking your car.)

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