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Government Spy Truck Is Disguised As A Google Street View Car (vice.com) 259

An anonymous reader writes: Matt Blaze, a University of Pennsylvania computer and information science professor, discovered a SUV "tucked away in the shadows of the Philadelphia Convention Center's tunnel" that was labeled as a Google Maps Street View car. It had two high-powered license plate reader cameras mounted on top, meaning it had to belong to a government agency. The Philadelphia Police Department had admitted it owns the truck after the report from Motherboard was published. "Unless the Philadelphia Fire Department of Streets Department are using automated license plate recognition (ALPR), this strongly suggests the city's police department is trawling city streets under the auspices of Google while snapping thousands of license plate images per minute," says Motherboard. ALPR can photograph thousands of license plate images per minute and track and store a person's travel habits without a warrant. Google spokesperson Susan Cadrecha commented on the report, "We can confirm this is not a Google Maps car, and that we are currently looking into the matter." The Philadelphia Police Department since responded to the report: "We have been informed that this unmarked vehicle belongs to the police department; however, the placement 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."
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Government Spy Truck Is Disguised As A Google Street View Car

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 12, 2016 @08:15PM (#52102073)

    from law enforcement are why the tree of liberty needs refreshing from time to time..

  • by jafiwam ( 310805 ) on Thursday May 12, 2016 @08:15PM (#52102075) Homepage Journal

    Really, what's the difference?

    I am sure disguising it as something else would be easy enough.

    Someone has a sense of humor.

    • by ka9dgx ( 72702 ) on Thursday May 12, 2016 @08:19PM (#52102089) Homepage Journal

      The difference is that doing this would put Google maps drivers in danger.

      Just like when the CIA sent spies disguised as vaccine workers, and set back the effort to eliminae smallpox worldwide.

      • Also (Score:3, Insightful)

        The difference is that doing this would put Google maps drivers in danger.

        Just like when the CIA sent spies disguised as vaccine workers, and set back the effort to eliminae smallpox worldwide.

        It is also use of Google's Trademarks as part of a government surveillance program--this reinforces the notion that Google itself and the American tech sector in general is not only replying to subpoenas, but is actually complicit in warrantless mass surveillance. It is harmful to Google's business reputation.

        • It is harmful to Google's business reputation.

          Google could probably start killing kittens by the dozen and it wouldn't harm their reputation.

      • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Thursday May 12, 2016 @09:17PM (#52102289)

        set back the effort to eliminae smallpox worldwide.

        Minor quibble: Smallpox was eliminated in the 1970s. The CIA operatives were disguised as polio vaccine workers.

        Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only countries in the world where polio is still endemic. Several dozen polio vaccine workers were killed in the backlash against the CIA ruse. The CIA has admitted that impersonating vaccine workers was a mistake, and said that they will not do it again.

        The movie "Zero Dark Thirty" showed CIA operatives pretending to be vaccine workers, but did not mention the backlash.

        • by msauve ( 701917 )
          "Minor quibble: Smallpox was eliminated in the 1970s"

          Minor quibble: Smallpox was not eliminated in the 1970s. It still exists in government <strike>bio-warfare</strike> research labs.
      • Nonsense.

        Police have been using unmarked cars forever. Some of these (esp. surveillance vans) have been disguised with company names (e.g. utilities seem to be popular) because those are even more 'non-suspect' than a van with no markings at all.

        Find me a single instance of a utility being attacked because the FBI used its name on a surveillance van.

      • Not small pox. Polio.
    • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

      one works for the other.

      at the heart of it, they have a common boss.

      that said, the police are scumbags to sink this low. if they want to spy, do it under color of LAW instead of COWERING behind some corp costume.

      pathetic.

      zero respect for the thugs in blue. every day, I hear more bullshit about the disfunctional police in the US.

      sickening. truly.

    • Agreed - at least it makes a difference to the florist and furniture delivery trucks they used to use.
    • Can the police legally impersonate a corporation? I am not aware of any legal police authority allowing this.
      • by raymorris ( 2726007 ) on Thursday May 12, 2016 @10:04PM (#52102409) Journal

        > I am not aware of any legal police authority allowing this

        There's no law that allows you to eat chocolate ice cream in your bedroom. You may do so because there's no law AGAINST it. So the question is whether any law prohibits this.

        Trademark law regulates the use of someone else's mark and name in TRADE, aka commerce. Because the cops weren't engaged in commerce, it probably doesn't apply.

        This looks a lot like "tortious interference ", disrupting business relationships through a guilty act which is not merely competitive. However, most jurisdictions require that tortious interference be "intentional", not just negligent. That means it would apply only if the cops were TRYING to harm Google or their customers. If business relationships are harmed as a sidee-effect of whatever the cops were doing, that's legal in most places.

        Some jurisdictions, including California, allow for recovery under tortious interference where the defendant both acted NEGLIGENTLY and did a guilty act, they were being a slimeball in some way. One could argue that the cops' actions qualify (and one could argue that they don't) . Again, most jurisdictions don't allow it anyway, they require intent to cause harm.

        Someone else may think of another law the police may have violated in this instance, but the laws which are most obviously relevant don't quite cover this case.

      • by PPH ( 736903 )

        Can the police legally impersonate a corporation?

        Corporations are people. Police are not.

      • Can the police legally impersonate a corporation? I am not aware of any legal police authority allowing this.

        Oh, well there's your problem- no one said it was legal, they just did it.

    • by ShaunC ( 203807 ) on Thursday May 12, 2016 @08:52PM (#52102219)

      It seriously calls into question the legitimacy of their surveillance. Phrased another way: if the police aren't doing anything wrong, why are they trying to hide it?

      • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Thursday May 12, 2016 @09:24PM (#52102303)

        if the police aren't doing anything wrong, why are they trying to hide it?

        Because if they drive down the street with a car marked "POLICE LICENSE PLATE SCANNER" and find a car associated with a wanted suspect, then that suspect may be long gone by the time they come back to make an arrest.

        • if the police aren't doing anything wrong, why are they trying to hide it?

          Because if they drive down the street with a car marked "POLICE LICENSE PLATE SCANNER" and find a car associated with a wanted suspect, then that suspect may be long gone by the time they come back to make an arrest.

          But in this case it was an ALPR unit mounted to and operating from an *unoccupied* & parked vehicle, meaning that the data was not being collected for traffic or criminal law enforcement, but as part of travel-data collection for a mass-surveillance program. I keep a small can of black spray-paint handy for such unattended camera/ALPR units. Of course a 2x4, brick, or baseball bat also works a treat in a pinch.

          Strat

          • My God man, what are you thinking? Posting on /. something like that!

            It's obvious you need a set of wrenches and screwdrivers, and to quietly put the units up for sale on Craigslist (in another city, several hundred miles away) nine months after they have gone missing.

            Or you can take the meth route, and find out how much copper is in one of those things...

          • by dave420 ( 699308 )

            You appear to not understand how ALPR/ANPR readers work. They can just sit there scanning plates and recording nothing, pinging matches against a database of subjects of interest, and then alert the force to that subject's location, in close to real-time. No need to claim you know that they are gathering travel data for mass surveillance (without any evidence), and claim that they are not doing this for traffic or criminal law enforcement (again without any evidence). Let's stick to the facts, ok?

    • by msauve ( 701917 )
      "Really, what's the difference?"

      Are you really such a naif? Google wants to send you ads. The government can send you to prison.
    • Really, what's the difference?

      I am sure disguising it as something else would be easy enough.

      Someone has a sense of humor.

      It's how a Domino's pizza delivery van

      Oh yes we did!

  • by surfdaddy ( 930829 ) on Thursday May 12, 2016 @08:17PM (#52102079)

    You know, the issue is that what has happened since Osama Bin Laden created the 9/11 disaster is that the U.S. has been creeping toward a surveillance state, but it has been slow enough that it's like hair growing. You have short hair, and you still have short hair, and a few weeks later you still have fairly short hair, and then a few months later you finally realize that you have long hair. But it happened so slowly that nobody is very alarmed. We have Clapper lying to Congress, we have Comey saying the government needs to get into terrorist encrypted phones, and we have Feinstein putting (essentially) backdoor encryption legislation out for comment. Meanwhile, police departments are going wild with Stingrays and cameras. Welcome to Big Brother and the surveillance state. "Land of the Free" and the home of the spied upon...

  • Ah (Score:4, Insightful)

    by DaMattster ( 977781 ) on Thursday May 12, 2016 @08:23PM (#52102113)
    The Orwellian Society draws ever near.
    • by raind ( 174356 )
      I was recently pulled over by a city cop, "you didn't do anything wrong" but the license plate was faded and had to be replaced, so was written up for - what a pita.
  • Not Approved (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Luthair ( 847766 ) on Thursday May 12, 2016 @08:27PM (#52102127)
    So some lowly peon opened their wallet and paid out of pocket for printing the Google vinyls? Bullshit.
    • Re:Not Approved (Score:5, Interesting)

      by sumdumass ( 711423 ) on Thursday May 12, 2016 @09:05PM (#52102261) Journal

      It probably came out of some (un)official slush fund billed as community outreach or something. A peon in the sense of the chain of command could likely still have access to these funds.

      We had a chief of police run out because the department purchased paintball guns and rented some land which they claimed was for training purposes. That claim fell apart quickly when it was videotaped and appeared purely recreational. It really fell apart when the owner of the land was discovered to be one of the office's relations. They claimed some patrol leader set it all up and that the higher ups were unaware of it. The chief took a leave of absence and retired shortly after. But he went to work at the municipal court building two months later I

    • Re:Not Approved (Score:4, Insightful)

      by xlsior ( 524145 ) on Thursday May 12, 2016 @10:05PM (#52102411) Homepage
      So some lowly peon opened their wallet and paid out of pocket for printing the Google vinyls? Bullshit.

      Cities and counties typically have equipment at their own public works department which can print plastic decals for things like street name signs, speed signs, traffic signs, etc. It wouldn't take much to print some custom decals on the same machines. Just because it got printed doesn't necessarily mean that the powers that be signed off on it.
      • by msauve ( 701917 )
        So, you're saying it may have been theft (or misappropriation) of public property?
        • by Calydor ( 739835 )

          More likely they have a fund for 'masking surveillance vehicles' and someone up high said, "Put a car here and disguise it as something." Lowly peon thought it would be fun to disguise it as a Google car.

  • Time to slap the "Flowers By Irene" stickers back on the side of this one.

  • I don't know what everyone is getting so upset over. I mean, the decals were removed.

    • by Calydor ( 739835 )

      I don't know what everyone is getting so upset over. I mean, the "I am Grasshoppa!" badges were removed.

  • by jfdavis668 ( 1414919 ) on Thursday May 12, 2016 @08:51PM (#52102217)
    It was probably just Garfield and Sherry trying to reboot the series.
  • by twmcneil ( 942300 ) on Thursday May 12, 2016 @09:04PM (#52102259)
    So if what this vehicle was doing was so above reproach, why disguise it's purpose? Oh, you mean, you have a reason to hide behind a facade, a LIE? Good going assholes.

    Really, can't tell the cops from the criminals these days.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The cops are the ones that get away with stuff. That's how you tell.

    • Really, can't tell the cops from the criminals these days.

      Sure you can. It's really easy. You are allowed to fight back against an unwarranted attack by a criminal. If the cop starts beating you randomly, you need to let him do it and hope he doesnt also want to kill you. Then you go to the station, get hand cuffed to a chair, beaten some more. I mean.. you accidentally fall from your chair.
      Then later, you can go home.
      See? Easy!

  • The Lives of Others (Score:4, Interesting)

    by zedaroca ( 3630525 ) on Thursday May 12, 2016 @09:21PM (#52102297)

    "The Lives of Others" (Das Leben der Anderen) is a great German movie about the Stasi.

    The fact that they are checking who is going in a convention center made me remember the movie. It may not be because of anything on the movie, but because of this CCC talk about the Stasi: What does Big Brother see, while he is watching? [32c3] [youtube.com]. I don't know, I watched the movie a long time ago and the talk this year, I just remember how beautiful it was.

  • The big question is, why? Why would they want to do this?

    Not so much the camouflage, but why reading all those license plates? What is the purpose of collecting that data, and what's going to happen with it? Is this a one-off (looking for a specific vehicle) or routine surveillance trying to map movements of individual vehicles?

    I can understand such an action if they're specifically looking for a suspect - someone they know is driving around the area, expected to use that road, but it's a needle in a haysta

    • by Livius ( 318358 )

      What is the purpose of collecting that data

      What's the purpose of any self-destructive addiction/fetish?

      It's a large quantity of data which likely would be inadmissible in court and the sheer quantity of it will impede actual police work.

      • It is not inadmissible in court because there is no valid expectation of privacy for a vehicle license number when the vehicle is parked on the street. Anyone can write it down with the location and store it. Repo companies have these trucks looking to identify targets.

        Quantity of data is not a problem at all. That is why we have computers and databases.

    • 1. Finding cars with large numbers of parking tickers (See "Parking Wars" [wikipedia.org])
      2. Finding wanted vehicles, fugitive warrants, suspended or revoked drivers’ license and stolen cars [rt.com].
      A few vehicles driving around a large city will scan every car maybe once a month. That is useless to track a vehicle's movement.

  • by Mantrid42 ( 972953 ) on Thursday May 12, 2016 @09:48PM (#52102365)
    Government Spy Truck is Very, Very Poorly Disguised As a Google Street View Car
  • by Pezbian ( 1641885 ) on Thursday May 12, 2016 @11:30PM (#52102639)

    "It won't happen again; we promise*."

    * We'll still do it, we'll just be more stealthy.

  • The decals removed (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pablo_max ( 626328 ) on Friday May 13, 2016 @12:29AM (#52102781)

    thank goodness...since you know..the decals is what everyone is concerned about. Not the mass tracking of the population without any cause.

  • by thisisauniqueid ( 825395 ) on Friday May 13, 2016 @12:57AM (#52102853)
    This scanner can scan thousands of license plates per minute?? Let's do the math.

    The vehicle has cameras on both sides. Assuming each camera can capture plates from up to 3 lanes of traffic, to achieve "thousands" of scans per minute, conservatively interpreted as at least 2000 scans per minute, each camera would have to pull in 1000 scans per minute, or 333 scans per minute per lane. This translates to a little over 5.5 scans per second per lane, or 0.2 seconds per scan per lane. This is impossible with the recommended 2 second minimum following distance between cars, regardless of the speed the cars are traveling -- in fact, the scan rate is 10x larger than the safe carrying capacity of 3 lanes on each side of the car.. Therefore, to scan "thousands" of plates per minute, this vehicle would have to be parked in the middle of a road 10x as wide, for roughly a total of 60 lanes.

    The only alternative to this would be to scan cars parked close together on both sides as the scan-van travels really, really fast up the middle. You'd have to pass 5.55 cars per second on each side. Assuming the cars are parked 5.5 meters apart, you have to travel 70mph past the line of parked cars to hit this rate, which would be not only illegal in a zone lined on both sides with parked cars, but it would also be dangerous. Maybe that's where they get the number from though? (Also, this is probably not workable due to motion blur at those speeds...)
    • If the van was driving towards multiple lanes of traffic, then for at least *half* of the vehicles within line-of-site of the cameras, they could be passing at a relative velocity of, say, 110mph. With that rate of closure, the perceived gap between vehicles, from the perspective of the van, would be far *less* that two seconds, yet for those vehicles themselves, they could all be driving entirely safely at the two-second separation.

      OK, so this would only ever work for half the vehicles on the road [the onc

      • This doesn't fix the numbers issue for practical driving speeds. Assuming a fixed number of lanes, you'll see the same number of vehicles if you're parked on the median as if you're moving at the same speed as traffic on one side of the road. In the latter case, assuming traffic is moving the same speed in both directions, and you are too, you see zero new license plates on your side of the road as a function of time, while traffic on the other side is approaching at 2x the relative speed. Of course, once y
  • Apologies, this is a bit contrived and a bit tongue-in-cheek, but could we think about this case from a trade mark perspective?

    Suppose the Google Logo is fully copyright and trademark protected [which I'm pretty sure it would be]. Now let's suppose that the city of Philadelphia was using the camera system on this [and perhaps other] vehicles to not merely build up a huge database of vehicle movements around the city, but also to detect vehicle tax or insurance evaders.

    Now suppose that the relevant governmen

  • We have been informed that this unmarked vehicle belongs to the police department; however, the placement 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.

    "We got caught doing creepy as fuck shit, and nobody is behind it. So relax."

  • Well I'm sure glad you caught our purpose-built and deliberately-disguised but also entirely-accidental surveillance can! What a mistake, I'm sure that was the only one, and we're the only police department to have made such a silly, silly mistake!

  • A govt looking SUV with a google street view log printed on paper and stuck inside the glass window? It is going to fool anyone? If they really wanted to fool anyone they should have disguised the car to look like this. [funniest-place.com]

MS-DOS must die!

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