Police in the US did a poor job of disguising a surveillance truck by trying to pass it off as a Google street view vehicle. The conspicuous-looking truck, which is very clearly equipped with licence plate-reading technology, was spotted by a university professor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Matt Blaze, computer and information science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, came across the SUV in a tunnel near the Philadelphia Convention Center, reports Motherboard. The vehicle was found with a logo for Google Maps crudely plastered to its rear windows, apparently in an attempt to pass it off as one of the vehicles Google uses to capture street-view images for its mapping service.
However, Blaze also spotted a permit on the truck's dashboard that clearly identifies it as being a government-owned vehicle registered to the Philadelphia Office of Fleet Management. When questioned, city officials initially denied that it belonged to the Pennsylvania State Police or parking authorities, both of which are known to use the automated licence plate recognition (ALPR) technology plainly visible on the vehicle.
Yet after Google confirmed that the vehicle wasn't one of theirs, the Philadelphia Police Department finally came clean and admitted it was one of their own. Even so, the department maintained that it had no idea why the truck was sporting the Google Maps logo.
A police department spokesperson was quoted as saying: "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."
Google, meanwhile, has launched an investigation into the unauthorised use of its logo.
While it's easy to laugh at the police for such a shoddy disguise attempt, it does highlight more serious questions around surreptitious police tactics and the use of surveillance vehicles.
There is mounting controversy in the United States around the use of Stingray technology, a family of IMSI-catchers that can be mounted to vehicles and imitates mobile base stations in order to intercept mobile communications.
Use of this technology appears to be becoming ever more flagrant, too. In a recent incident, it was claimed that Baltimore police used Stingray equipment to intercept a man accused of stealing takeaway food from a delivery driver.
IMSI-catchers are also in use in the UK, with an investigation by Sky News in 2015 concluding that there are at least 20 Stingrays in use in London alone.
There's no indication that the truck in this instance was equipped with such technology, yet the question remains why police went to such lengths to disguise it. ALPR is routinely used for spotting stolen vehicles and collaring scofflaws. However, its use has also been linked to issues of mass surveillance and data privacy, owing to its ability to scan and store licence plates en masse.
Catching out police attempts to dress up surveillance vehicles as something more innocent will do nothing to quell these concerns.