Police Want Waze's Cop-Tracker Shut Down

Law enforcement is lobbying Google to shut down a popular feature in its Waze traffic software. The feature warns drivers when police are in their proximity, and the police are claiming the feature puts officers' lives at risk because would-be cop killers can easily find where police are located.

Waze is both a GPS and social networking app. Drivers can report situations to the app, which in turn provides that information to other users.  It's a very popular app: "Fifty million users in 200 countries turn to the free service for real-time traffic guidance and warnings about nearby congestion, car accidents, speed traps or traffic cameras, construction zones, potholes, stalled vehicles or unsafe weather conditions."

There are no known incidents of Waze-based police stalking.

Sergei Kopelev, who is a reserve deputy sheriff in Southern California, thinks Waze is a police stalking app: "...law enforcers such as Kopelev are concerned it's only a matter of time. They are seeking support among other law enforcement trade groups to pressure Google to disable the police-reporting function. The emerging policy debate places Google again at the center of an ongoing global debate about public safety, consumer rights and privacy."

The way it works is that Waze users mark the presence of police on a map, either as "visible" or "hidden" when they see them along their route.  Other drivers in the area are subsequently warned that a police officer has been identified in their vicinity.

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A Waze spokeswoman, Julie Mossler, said the company thinks deeply about safety and security. She said Waze works with the New York Police Department and others around the world by sharing information. Google declined to comment.

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

Sheriff Mike Brown of Bedford County, Virginia, said the police-reporting feature, which he called the "police stalker," presents a danger to law enforcement.

"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," said Brown, who also serves as the chairman of the National Sheriffs Association technology committee.

The civil libertarians are having none of this.

Nuala O'Connor, head of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington civil liberties group, said it would not be appropriate for Google to disable the police-reporting feature.

"I do not think it is legitimate to ask a person-to-person communication to cease simply because it reports on publicly visible law enforcement," she said. She said a bigger concern among privacy advocates is how much information about customers Waze shares with law enforcement, since the service necessarily monitors their location continually as long as it's turned on.

Concerns about the software were raised at the National Sheriffs Association Winter meeting. "Brown and Kopelev raised concerns during the meeting of the National Sheriffs Association winter conference in Washington. They pointed to the Instagram account of the man accused of shooting two NYPD officers last month. Ismaaiyl Brinsley posted a screenshot from Waze on his Instagram account along with messages threatening police. Investigators do not believe he used Waze to ambush the officers, in part because police say Brinsley tossed his cellphone more than two miles from where he shot the officers."

Let me just take a wild guess as to what's really going on here. Police departments are worried that their revenue-generating traffic-ticket operation is going to take a hit when drivers are warned the police are holding an informal fundraiser on public highways. Highway patrols and policemen are operating in the public and there is no reason the people should not be able to share that information with others. With no evidence to suggest the police-reporting feature has been used to hunt down police officers, it sure seems this is more about the bottom line.