Google Maps ‘Surveillance’ Vehicle Under Investigation By Philadelphia Police

Google Maps was featured prominently on what was thought to be a Philadelphia Police Department SUV recently, and the vehicle is now under investigation. It is common for police to disguise their vehicles for surveillance. We see it a lot in movies and TV shows, but in real life it’s not so obvious.

Often enough, there may be suspected criminal activity stemming from a particular place, and police can’t simply park a cruiser and watch. Once criminals know they’re being watched, they start covering up what they do, or they move on. It’s much more effective to decorate a van or SUV with fake advertising for a business, usually one which specializes in something that takes a while.

Of course, some businesses might have a problem with vehicles being marked with their logos, and it’s illegal to use decals for an actual business when it is not the business being conducted. Google is one of the biggest businesses in the world now, and the company might take offense to professional vehicles being used with their logo but without their permission.

In Pennsylvania on Wednesday, a University professor spotted the mysterious vehicle, equipped with automated license plate readers but bearing what appeared to be a Google Maps logo on the window. He found it odd and looked into it, only to find that the Philadelphia Police had not authorized its vehicles to bear the logo.

“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.”

It is unknown how the Google Maps logo made it onto the vehicle, and Gizmodo claims the logo looked very much hand made. This indicates the possibility of a prank by someone with access to window decal materials.

The troubling part about this possible prank was that the vehicle was equipped with license plate readers. These devices automatically scan plates, making them useful for hunting stolen cars, following up on Amber alerts, and looking up the driver’s potential criminal history.

Electronic Frontier Foundation researcher Dave Maass told the press, “It’s certainly concerning if the city of Philadelphia is running mass surveillance and going out of its way to mislead people.”

Even as a potential prank, the implications of this vehicle and its window decal could be right up there with the NSA, keeping tabs on the populace without their knowledge. An official Google Maps vehicle would be more likely to have cameras on top, not license plate readers. The Google service is meant to help navigation through the use of street maps and pictures taken on said streets.

The City of Philadelphia could be looking at legal action if the decals on the vehicle, both for Google Maps and the one labeling it as a Philadelphia Police vehicle, were placed on purpose. The implications could be seriously disturbing, and “the city of brotherly love” could lose the trust of its citizens.

Google is also looking into this matter, and their means are widespread. They own arguably the most dependable mapping system and email provider, and even keep track of photos uploaded to their servers to investigate things like child pornography.

Official police surveillance vehicles will more likely be marked with fake company logos, not Google Maps. The discovery of this vehicle was almost an ironic twist on the crime of impersonating an officer. It’s unknown who was behind the vehicle and its decals, or even if it was some elaborate prank.

[Image via think4photop/]