The Pennsylvania state police have a vehicle all fitted out with the latest mobile surveillance technology. It reads license plate numbers, and transmits the data – along with the vehicle’s location, date and time – to a central database. That way, you can track vehicle movements over time. If you collect enough data points, you can analyze the data for patterns. We are not talking about stolen vehicles here. Police want to monitor as many vehicles as they can.
Well the Pennsylvania state police don’t want those privacy nuts to be on their backs. The nuts are just terrorist lovers, anyway. So now we need some way to hide what this car actually does, so the nuts don’t object. What do the geniuses at the Pennsylvania state police come up with? They decide to put some decals on the car to disguise it as a Google street view car! That’s right! We’ll let Google take the heat! Google, of course, blurs out license plate numbers in its street views. Still, the Pennsylvania state police figure they’re putting a good one over on all those sucker car owners, as they cruise around reading license plates for their database.
Except they don’t bother to disguise the car’s plate readers, and it even had Pennsylvania state police documents on the dash! A quick check showed the vehicle registered to the state. Good God, won’t the police show Google a little mercy? The amazing thing is that these idiots think this kind of disguise will work. “Oh look, there’s a Google street view car that actually looks like an unmarked Pennsylvania state police SUV.” Or, “Lookie there, a Pennsylvania state police car with Google decals on it.” Either way, the state police look foolish when someone catches them out.
Which happened soon enough. Matt Blaze, associate professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, tweeted a photograph of the surveillance vehicle, showing the car’s odd markings. His tweet to accompany the photo said, “WTF? Pennsylvania State Police license plate reader SUV camouflaged as Google Street View vehicle.” See this article for a humorous comparison between the fake car and a real Google Street View vehicle.
Of course the state police denied the car belonged to them. When forced later on to admit the truth, the state police 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.
I like the general tone of detachment and dispossession here. Someone informed the state police that their own vehicle belonged to them. Then the police informed us that someone informed them. That means they have to rely on unidentified sources to tell them what vehicles they own. Then they tell us that the Google decal was not approved through any chain of command. That means some rogue police officer put the Google Maps decal in the window as some kind of prank – not so likely – or that some rogue bureaucrat approved the decal outside the chain of command. That’s not so likely, either, as a rogue bureaucrat is an oxymoron. I wonder if the person who approved the decal would be the same person who informs the department about its missing vehicles.
The state police just cannot get out of the passive voice. In the statement’s last sentence, yet another unidentified person brings this cock-up of a camouflage job to the police department’s attention. Then another unidentified person orders the decals to be removed immediately. That’s a perfect record! Four unidentified people in a two-sentence explanation! You start to think the state police operate in a universe where everyone is anonymous, and where no one takes responsibility for anything. No wonder the organization rolls license plate readers up and down the streets, with a fake-looking Google Maps logo to serve as a decoy.
What is the right reaction to this kind of thing? Contempt and ridicule? Mockery? Anger and indignation? You have to hand it to authorities: they always find crassly clever ways to spend our tax money. When you deal with government power and crime prevention programs, what begins as stupid, silly surveillance ends as sinister, suppressive surveillance. If we want to counter this unhappy impulse to know everything about everyone, we ought to mock authorities’ incompetence, ridicule their foolishness, and make fun of their badly conceived deceits before they feel assertive enough to end free-spirited criticism.