An SUV was tucked away in the shadows of the Philadelphia Convention Center, and that truck was actually one owned by the Philadelphia Police Department. The truck doesn't bear a decal for the Philly police, instead it has a Google Street View logo, hinting that it might be a vehicle that takes pictures or Google maps. The truck even has two high-powered license plate reader cameras.
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Many people thought it was something innocent, but other ones say through it and realized that it was a crudely disguised tool for surveillance. Some even tweeted out pictures of the truck, blowing the cover.
The question is, why would a government agency want to disguise a surveillance vehicle like this and why does it need to do it?
A placard that was on the dashboard was the only indication that the SUV was registered with the Philadelphia Office of Fleet Management, a group that maintains the 6,316 vehicles owned by city government.
Christopher Cocci, who is the city's fleet manager and who signed the document, said that the vehicle doesn't belong to the PA State Police, which does use automated license plate recognition, nor does it belong to the Philadelphia Parking Authority.
“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 the released of the photos. He does believe it was connected to law enforcement activity.
Unless either the Philadelphia Fire Department or another local organization are using ALPR, it seems that the city's police department is monitoring city streets while masquerading as Google - and they are likely snapping thousands of license plate images per minute.
It is even more strange that, since 2011, Philadelphia police have been operating at least 10 mobile cameras and not hiding it.
The use of ALPR is so controversial because it is a way to track people's travel habits. In Philly, the police are able to keep this information for a full year, even if residents aren't under investigation.
Spokespersons for the police department aren't speaking out.
“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. When pressed, Cadrecha did not say if the company had concerns about the local agency using their logo for such a controversial and powerful thing.
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In a follow-up email, Cadrecha said: “We don't have any further comment at this time,” but indicated that the company might have more to say as their inquiry continues.