Philly cops used surveillance SUV marked 'Google Maps'

The officers who used the logo were 'trying to be creative'

By Julie Shaw
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — A Philadelphia Police Department surveillance vehicle bearing a Google Maps logo, seen in Center City on Wednesday, was not authorized to use the logo, officials said Friday.

"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," police spokesman Lt. John Stanford said in an email.

"Once this was brought to our attention, it was ordered that the decals be removed immediately."

Stanford said the officers who used the logo were "trying to be creative."

A University of Pennsylvania faculty member spotted the SUV Wednesday morning on 13th Street near Arch, under the Pennsylvania Convention Center tunnel.

The faculty member, Matt Blaze, an associate professor of computer and information science in Penn's School of Engineering and Applied Science, tweeted at 8:05 a.m.:

"WTF? Pennsylvania State Police license plate reader SUV camouflaged as Google Street View vehicle."

The Pennsylvania State Police soon replied to Blaze - whose research focuses on cryptography and its applications - that the SUV wasn't a State Police vehicle.

Then an online magazine, Motherboard, reported Thursday that the Philadelphia Police Department confirmed it was a city police vehicle.

A spokeswoman for Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., confirmed Friday that the SUV is not a Google-owned vehicle and said the company is looking into the matter.

Motherboard quoted a Kansas man with experience in public-safety technology as saying the van contained gear including "infrared cameras to find plate numbers and letters via temperature differentials between those characters and the surrounding background through optical character recognition."

The cameras are able to read and process "several plates simultaneously" and "in a fraction of a second," the man told the magazine.

Copyright 2016 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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