Google asked to muzzle Waze ‘police-stalking’ app

Police alert on Waze

GPS trackers on vehicles; stingray devices to siphon mobile phone IDs and their owners’ locations; gunshot-detection sensors; license plate readers: these are just some of the types of surveillance technologies used by law enforcement, often without warrants.

Now, US police are protesting the fact that citizens are using technology to track them, and they want Google to pull the plug on it.

The technology being used to track police – regardless of whether they’re on their lunch break, assisting with a broken-down vehicle on the highway, or hiding in wait to nab speeders – is part of a popular mobile app, Waze, that Google picked up in 2013.

Waze logo

Waze describes itself as “the world’s largest community-based traffic and navigation app”.

It lets people report accidents, traffic jams, and speed and police traps, while its online map editor gives drivers updates on roads, landmarks, house numbers, and the cheapest nearby fuel.

Waze relies on a user base that is 50 million strong, with users all over the world and complete map sets for at least 14 countries, and counting.

It also gives drivers a heads-up when police are nearby, using two settings: an icon for hidden police, or an icon for visible officers.

Police alert on Waze

That puts officers in danger and enables users to stalk police, sheriffs claim, and thus Google should do the ‘right thing’ and shut it down.

Sheriff Mike Brown of Bedford County, Virginia, who’s also the chairman of the National Sheriffs Association technology committee, raised concerns about the technology over the weekend at the association’s winter conference in Washington, The Associated Press reports.

The Associated Press quotes Brown:

The police community needs to coordinate an effort to have the owner, Google, act like the responsible corporate citizen they have always been and remove this feature from the application even before any litigation or statutory action.

In the US, the type of danger to police that first leaps to mind is typified by the December 2014 execution-style murder of two officers in Brooklyn.

The killer, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, had been a Waze user before the murders and his own suicide. He posted a Waze screenshot on his Instagram account, along with messages threatening police, before the shootings.

Investigators reportedly don’t think that Brinsley used Waze to find his victims, given that he tossed his mobile phone more than two miles from where he killed the policemen.

But besides this horrific example, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, Jim Pasco, thinks the app could be used by lawbreakers in other ways:

I can think of 100 ways that it could present an officer-safety issue. There’s no control over who uses it. So, if you’re a criminal and you want to rob a bank, hypothetically, you use your Waze.

While Google declined to comment, Waze spokeswoman Julie Mossler told the Associated Press that the company takes safety and security seriously, citing the fact that Waze shares information with the New York Police Department and others around the world:

These relationships keep citizens safe, promote faster emergency response and help alleviate traffic congestion.

Privacy advocates aren’t soothed by the notion of data-sharing with police.

Nuala O’Connor, head of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that asking Google/Waze to stop crowd-sourcing information on publicly visible law enforcement is out of line and that privacy advocates are a lot more concerned about how much customer data an app like Waze is sharing with police, given that it constantly monitors users’ movements and locations.

Waze isn’t the first mobile app targeted by the law. In 2011, for example, senators asked Apple to get rid of apps that alert drivers to sobriety checkpoints.

Apple did no such thing – we found several available in the AppStore, including “Mr. Checkpoint” and “PhantomALERT”.

Personally, I don’t find this an easy call.

Yes, as commenter fjpoblam said on The Guardian’s posting of the Associated Press story, this call to muzzle Waze does sound like law enforcement wants to be able to spy on citizens but doesn’t want citizens to be able to turn the tables.

But in the light of the murders of NYPD officers Wenjin Liu and Rafael Ramos, it’s completely understandable that police would feel as if they were being stalked by an app like this.

While it’s true that the information being collected is freely available to anybody who looks around and spots a blue uniform, the fact that the information is aggregated from an enormous user base and then matched with GPS coordinates brings up unpleasant memories of apps such as Girls Around Me – minus the social media tie-ins that empowered potential stalkers with intimate personal information.

Nick Selby, Dallas area detective and CEO of StreetCred Software, which makes intelligence tools for law enforcement, pointed out to me that there’s nothing new about citizens sharing information of police whereabouts:

Officer locations often aren't secrets. Uniformed police officers often are there to present a professional presence, to deter crime. Often, they erect roadside signs that say things like, 'Police officer ahead.' ... The mere fact of an app pinpointing to its users that an officer is at a certain location doesn't strike me as any more scary than, say, Cbers in the 70s calling out where Smokey is running radar.

(Note: “Smokey” is US Citizens’ Band radio slang for “police”.)

It is, however, a little unnerving to have such information aggregated and visualized, Selby said:

This isn't a new concept, but the aggregation and visualization components can be jarring.

We should also bear in mind that technology such as Waze has dual purposes, he noted: at the same time that we receive information shared by others, we also expose information about ourselves.

At any rate, in this case, with this particular aspect of this particular technology, he’s “glad that law enforcement noticed”.

What’s your take? Should Google put the lid on Waze’s police “stalking”?

Does danger to police warrant the suppression of publicly available, crowd-sourced information?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.