Law enforcement wants popular police-tracking app disabled

January 26, 2015 byEileen Sullivan
This image taken from the the Waze app on an iPhone, in Washington, shows police at the scene on a map on the app. Sheriffs are campaigning to pressure Google Inc. to turn off a feature on its Waze traffic software that warns drivers when police are nearby. Authorities say one of the technology industry's most popular mobile apps could put officers' lives in danger from would-be cop-killers who can find where their targets are parked. (AP Photo/Ted Bridis)

Law enforcement is concerned that the popular Waze mobile traffic app by Google Inc., which provides real-time road conditions, can also be used to hunt and harm police.

Waze is a combination of GPS navigation and social networking. Fifty million users in 200 countries turn to the free service for warnings about nearby congestion, car accidents, speed traps, traffic cameras, construction zones, potholes, stalled vehicles or unsafe weather conditions.

Waze users mark police—who are generally working in public spaces—on maps without much distinction other than "visible" or "hidden." Users see a police icon, but it's not immediately clear whether police are there for a speed trap, a sobriety check or a lunch break.

To some in law enforcement, this feature amounts to a stalking app for people who want to harm police. They want Google to disable that feature.

The growing concern is the latest twist in Google's complicated relationship with government and law enforcement. It places the Internet giant, again, at the center of an ongoing global debate about public safety, consumer rights and privacy.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck complained in a letter to Google's chief executive on Dec. 30 that Waze could be "misused by those with criminal intent to endanger police officers and the community."

The Los Angeles Police Department said Monday it had not heard back from Google about whether it had addressed Beck's concerns.

Google purchased Waze for $966 million in 2013.

This image shows apps in cludind the Waze app, lower right. on an iPhone in Washington. Sheriffs are campaigning to pressure Google Inc. to turn off a feature on its Waze traffic software that warns drivers when police are nearby. Authorities say one of the technology industry's most popular mobile apps could put officers' lives in danger from would-be cop-killers who can find where their targets are parked. (AP Photo/Ted Bridis)

There are no known connections between any attack on police and Waze, although Beck said Waze was used in the killing of two New York Police Department officers on Dec. 20. The Instagram account of the gunman in that case included a screenshot from Waze along with other messages threatening police.

Investigators do not believe the shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, used Waze to ambush the NYPD officers, in part because police say Brinsley tossed his cellphone more than two miles from where he shot the officers. In his letter to Google, Beck said that Brinsley had been using the Waze app to track police since early December.

"I am confident your company did not intend the Waze app to be a means to allow those who wish to commit crimes to use the unwitting Waze community as their lookouts for the location of police officers," Beck wrote.

Some officers, like Sheriff Mike Brown of Bedford County, Virginia, think it's only a matter of time before Waze is used to hunt and harm police.

"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 raised the issue at a National Sheriffs' Association meeting in Washington January 23.

Google declined to comment and directed questions to a Waze spokeswoman, Julie Mossler, who 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.

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

The NYPD did not respond to questions about Waze.

Google has a complicated relationship with government and law enforcement. The company worked closely with the Obama administration to defend itself against hacking by China's government, and it is regularly compelled to turn over to police worldwide copies of emails or other information about its customers. Last year, after disclosures that the National Security Agency had illicitly broken into Google's overseas Internet communication lines, Google and other technology companies rolled out encryption for consumers, which the U.S. government said could hamper law enforcement investigations. Also last year, Google and other companies sued the U.S. to allow them to more fully disclose to customers details about how much information they were required to hand over each year.

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.

O'Connor 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.

This is not the first time law enforcement has raised concerns with these types of apps. In 2011, four U.S. senators asked Apple to remove all applications that alert users to drunken driving checkpoints. Apple's current guidelines for developers state that the company will not accept apps with information about drunken driving checkpoints unless the checkpoints are published by law enforcement agencies, an Apple spokeswoman said.

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14 comments

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alfie_null
3 / 5 (3) Jan 26, 2015
The type of criminal who robs banks tend not to be the sort who can't even spell 'Internet', let alone use it.
Squirrel
3 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2015
Yes, alfie_null, those that can use malware -- physically robbing banks is only for the dumb and movie stars in poorly plotted films.
cyclguy
1 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2015
"It's only a matter of time." Well that applies to everything. Given an infinite amount of time, every possible outcome will come to be, sooner or later, and then of course; what about the multiverse?. The level of thought that goes into our discourse these days seriously depresses me. Many, many people of constrained intellectual capacity will parrot those words without ever giving any thought to whether or not the proposition is valid, or if the prop even makes sense.
Gimp
3 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2015
That is the most LAME excuse anyone has ever come up with to stop folks from finding out where speed traps are. Stalk them all you want, they have GUNS! Nobody cares if I am stalked.
RichManJoe
4 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2015
This, to me, appears to be a question of what is the greater good. Bank robberies are so infrequent, compared to the general public uses. In my mind, the general public wins. Also, where will the police stop in asking for (and receiving) special access to our privacy - they have invaded our privacy by accessing many public video sources, plus they have access to the GPS data from our phones.
kochevnik
1 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2015
Anything the police want is probably not in your interest
ViperSRT3g
5 / 5 (2) Jan 26, 2015
If they remove this one feature, what is to say that another noting feature will just be used in its place? Let alone another app that will pop up specifically for this purpose just because the feature was removed from Waze.
Captain Stumpy
4.5 / 5 (4) Jan 26, 2015
well... this would be horrible for a bank robbery simply because it only takes into account current police operations/locations... it doesn't factor in response times or response routes...

this IS likely something that would be heavily used by the drug trade, however
and the trucking industry too

Anyone who has a vested interest in not being stopped by the cops so that they can break some rules/laws

i am of a mixed opinion on this however, mostly because it does allow one to track law enforcement easily (which means including their home for anyone with any kind of tech savvy) and so this is a threat to privacy in that respect

the best/cheapest fix for cops: develop a method to skew the findings and make it useless
show cops where they are not and don't show where they really are

the court battle will likely be far more expensive than simply altering the data used by the app...
rp142
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 26, 2015
This is not new. When I bought a TomTom navigator many years ago, there were downloadable speed camera locations from TomTom and community updated versions that would list additional speed traps. There is a demand for this sort of information but having every location where police are observed just adds a lot of noise and might just make the data less useful.

Since the data is guaranteed to be incomplete, it would be of limited value to help criminals trying to avoid the police anyway. With examples terrorists and other criminals targeting police, there is some justification for the police to be concerned about this. However, police in uniform and in marked vehicles are highly visible and would still be easily targeted without this sort of data sharing.
indio007
not rated yet Jan 26, 2015
Drunk driver road blocks are to be published in the paper BEFORE they are set up. Apple is enabling treasonous behavior by revenuers .
Tabali Tigi
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 26, 2015
They should just stop making money by harassing drivers, and do something useful...like maybe focus on finding all the killers that they haven't yet...Pretty sure all police officers should only be focused on violent crime, and nothing else until it's done. No drugs, no speeding tickets, no jaywalking, no "revenue" period...Only violent crimes.

MandoZink
3.8 / 5 (4) Jan 27, 2015
Can't they come up with better excuses than bad people will be hunting them? What about someone that would like to find the nearest policeman for some reason? Isn't that what their job is to begin with? Why would you make that more difficult? Aren't they supposed to be ready for trouble that may arise? What are they hiding for?

Oh yeah. Sorry. I keep forgetting that somebody may want to hurt them. Good reason for all of us to hide.
Osiris1
5 / 5 (1) Jan 28, 2015
Use of 'waze' is a two edged sword. Every digital fone under Heaven has its own GPS locator beacon inside it, so cops can track users on computer screens similar to aircraft control tower supercomputers and do this in real time. They are probably tracking YOUR fone right now as likely by a secret law your old analog fone was refused service, forcing you to use digital service which is the spy you have in your pocket because of another law mandating GPS in all cell fones to track users. That is why that scumbag cop killer tossed his fone 'two miles away', and why it was found......quickly. The mere 'tossing' of a fone in some unlikely area can be picked up by ever monitoring computers our secret police AKA Homeland Security or NSA who can then autoswitch to its parallel tracking of computers/gps in the subjects car or smartwatch or other 'familiars' that we all keep near us.

So who is watching who? Watchers do not like to be watched. They secretly 'listen in' too!
Captain Stumpy
4 / 5 (2) Jan 28, 2015
Pretty sure all police officers should only be focused on violent crime, and nothing else until it's done
@Tabali Tigi
why is that?
Officers ARE focused on violent crimes and this is the bulk of a lot of duty assignments... but a police officer is dedicated to more than just stopping violent criminals, they are used to enforce ALL laws...

and believe it or not, a lot of violent criminals are initially captured in petty crimes (from jaywalking, drugs and shoplifting to other similar minor offenses like traffic violations, DUI, etc)

you would be surprised how many violent offenders are nailed by their fingerprints (taken during booking) which is still the largest contributor to successful prosecution in the forensics arsenal

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