Many people have seen the Google Maps vehicles going around the streets. In fact, in some places, it isn’t even a car or truck, it can be a camel that maps the Sahara desert, or a backpack that maps hiking trails.
A time honored tradition is to pose in front of the Google StreetView cameras, and live forever in Internet immortality (or at least until Google remaps the roads).
But in Philadelphia, you can’t be sure whether you are posing for the Google cameras, or for the Police.
The Philadelphia Police Department has just been caught trying to disguise a license plate reading vehicle as a Google StreetView vehicle. Google stickers were placed on the vehicle and everything, in order to disguise the police vehicle. The license plate reader devices can clearly be seen on the roof of the SUV, and they look very different to the actual google maps cars
This is the Police vehicle:
And this is the real Google Maps car:
They look very different, don’t they? But to those who do not know what the Google vehicles look like, they could easily be mistaken. Initially, the police force denied that they had anything to do with this, but later they submitted a statement that said:
“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.”
This is honestly a serious breach of trust. Not just for the people of Philadelphia, but for those around the country. More importantly, it is a breach of trust that the public has in Google. People do not expect to have Google vehicles getting their license plates, as in the Google terms, they say that they will blur them out, and they do. This is a breach of trust between Google and the Philadelphia Police Department mostly. Google collects a lo of data about people. and to protect those people, they have rules to keep that data secret and safe; and given America’s history with authorities, Google keeps that data safe from the prying eyes of the law. The Police Department has flaunted that trust by abusing the people’s trust in Google for their own benefit. One true worry is that people will begin to attack Google vehicles, in fear that the information collected will be passed on to the authorities.
Why did they do it?
Well, unmarked police cars are very common in America. They are important for police to keep a low profile in areas where they could face danger if they are identified as police. Additionally, unmarked cars allow police to carry out routine and lawful surveillance of suspects, without compromising the investigation by being identified as police surveillance. This is easy enough to do with a standard cruiser, but the license plate readers must be mounted on the roof of the vehicle, and they stick out quite obviously. How can this be disguised? It seems that normally, the authorities try not to hide them, and mount them on a basic unmarked car, but this time some individual tried to get creative and disguise the surveillance vehicle even further. Whomever made the decision to try to disguise the vehicle as a Google Maps car was misguided, and the Philadelphia Police have said that this was an isolated incident, and will never happen again.
However, one must ask why even try to hide the vehicle at all? Why disguise it in any way? What purpose does disguising a license plate reader serve? The public would be better served with the vehicles being open and obvious. These vehicles can be used to replace meter maids, and improve the effectiveness of ticketing parked cars, as all the vehicle has to do is drive by, and it can register the plate as having parked there, and when the vehicle drives by again, it will check how long the car has been in the spot and issue a ticket if it has been there too long. The ticket can be sent digitally, and this would increase the revenues of the Police Department by a significant sum. This is how the Korean Police handle this issue, and it works very well. Take a look at the vehicles they use to scan license plates. It is very obvious and people are used to these vehicles.
What benefit comes from disguising the vehicles? They can discreetly scan license plates and see if any vehicles are stolen. But is it really necessary? How often do those who have stolen a car wait outside and move the car right when the license plate reader goes by? This is highly unlikely, as that would require someone to be constantly looking out their window for the vehicle. Whether the use for these license plate readers are good or not is another issue, but it is quite clear that almost no benefit comes from having them be unmarked, and a huge detriment comes from trying to disguise them further.