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 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.
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.
20 comments on “Google asked to muzzle Waze ‘police-stalking’ app”
A two edged sword if there was one in the electronic world.
I love Waze and so biased but one incident means nothing wrt to police safety and as they say they share their info with the police too!
It’s quite unnerving for officers, I’m sure; but the Dallas detectives’ comments do provide a frank and sobering assessment: only the aggregation is really new.
And in a wider sense, perhaps such scenarios will encourage the powers-that-be to both think about the sweeping abilities they frequently request, and moderate their use of such where possible – as a means ot then exercising moral pressure on we public to thus behave well, given opportunities for the public to access such data-sets are only going to increase?
If the police can do it, then so can we and I see nothing wrong with it !
More concerned about what information Waze is sharing with the New York Police Department and others around the world. Disappointed to say the least.
They don’t share personal data. They only share traffic data and accident / hazard reports submitted by users.
Waze does not sell, rent or lease your personal information to third parties.
How do we know that? What data are they storing?
How do we know what they really do with their data? or what data they are even storing?
Are you claiming to be an official spokes-person from Waze?
I’ve worked in law enforcement for more than a decade. There is a plethora of real threats to law enforcement. Waze is not one of them. The Sheriff’s Association and the FOP would have a lot more credibility if they exerted there resources fighting real threats to law enforcement….
If it’s not Waze there will be another app (or 20) they can’t prevent crowd sourced data like this.
Many times the police’s obvious presence is deliberate as a traffic calming or anti crime thing so waze is just expanding on that. If it works to stop someone speeding or drink driving or committing a crime it’s a good thing. Police standing in the open or sitting in their cars openly and deliberately are already in possible danger and that’s part of their job.
So why aren’t law enforcement complaining about TV and Radio stations giving out that same information every morning when people are on their way to work. Anything the police are allowed to do we should be allowed to do. If all the police do is “follow and uphold the law” why cant we follow suite and do the same exact things they are doing.
I hope police remember that they work for the public, to execute the laws that protect the rights of the public. As employees of the organizations that are our City, County, and State governments, what they do (and where they do it) in the course of their duties should be a matter of public record. Waze is simply providing better accessibility to this data than the government.
Surely this information could be used for both positive and negative uses. I think the concerns voiced by Sheriff Brown and Jim Pasco are somewhat exaggerated to make their points. Personally, I would rather have access to this information (I am not a Waze user). If this information becomes an actual threat – instead of a perceived one – then I would be willing to make changes to protect our officers.
I think I remember this app, but I never installed it until today. Backed up the APK and used Titanium Backup. Barbra Streisand effect at its finest – this will only make it more popular, even if it means the devs have to host the APKs on their own website rather than through Google Play.
A hypothetical danger can be constructed for the use of almost any technology. That alone should not be a valid reason for a government agency to limit, ban, or otherwise exert control of it (although it certainly doesn’t stop them from trying, often successfully). Officers of the law have a job that can be literally a matter of life and death, and I’m glad they’re there. But I don’t think that entitles them to have more privacy or protection than any other citizen doing their job and living their life.
The writer of this article sounds fairly new to the world with limited history. I don’t see it as any more unnerving that listening in on police scanners. Scanning police communications provides a lot of detailed information on events including locations. Also, the public cant’ stalk police. It’s an asymmetrical power relationship. They have the guns and the power. Once again, it’s not the technology, it’s the person using it and their intention.
The power equation isn’t as simple as that. The police aren’t the only ones who have guns, as the murders of the Brooklyn officers—or any number of homicides in any US city on too many given days—plainly show.
As I believe I made clear, the aggregation of location information is what makes this app unnerving. Freely available information takes on greater import when aggregated and presented in an easily accessible map format. Sure, scanning police communications can tell you where cops are. Putting that same information on a map that’s then presented in an easy-to-access mobile app makes it that much more accessible.
I’m not saying Google should pull the plug on Waze. But I can understand why the app might make officers uncomfortable.
I wonder if they are really just afraid of losing fines revenue from cops lying in wait being marked by this thing.
I presume the police could use the system to produce phantom officers wherever they chose.
Law enforcement has no compunction conducting wholesale “spying”on lawful citizens using such things as ALPR systems. The fact of the matter this is about revenue generation and nothing else.
Anyone prepared to do violence against police offices don’t need an app to inform them where they are. Just as police suggest that individuals shouldn’t expect privacy when operating vehicles on public roads, certainly police shouldn’t be held to another standard. Such hypocrisy!
Remember the days when CBs ruled, there were smokey reports from other drivers. This is merely a 21st century version of the same thing. I say to LEOs deal with it! Technology works both ways!