TECHNOLOGY

US police confront Google over ‘cop-tracking’ app

A patrol officer in Newark, New Jersey, on January 20.
A patrol officer in Newark, New Jersey, on January 20. Andrew Burton, Getty Images North America / AFP

A Google traffic app that allows users to tag the location of police has come under fire from US law enforcement for allegedly endangering officers’ lives. But supporters of Waze say police are simply uncomfortable being monitored by the public.

Advertising

in New York

With over 50 million users worldwide, Waze is the world’s largest community-based traffic app, using GPS and social networking to alert drivers to traffic jams, accidents and even potholes. In 2013 it was bought by Google for $966 million.

For many drivers in the US, it’s considered essential for getting around as quickly and conveniently as possible: something which can involve knowing where police are.

Users drop a pin on the Waze map to show where they’ve cited law enforcement, supposedly prompting users to drive more carefully. Supporters of the scheme say it encourages safer driving.

But for the past month, police have been campaigning for Google to disable it.

In an open letter to Google CEO Larry Page late December, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck warned that the app poses a danger to the lives of police officers.

"I am concerned about the safety of law enforcement officers and the community, and the potential for your Waze product to be misused by those with criminal intent to endanger police officers and the community," Beck wrote.

He cited the deaths of New York patrol officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, whose assassin, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, allegedly used the app to “track the location of police” before shooting the partners dead on a busy Brooklyn street on December 20.

Brinsley posted several anti-police messages on his Instagram account ahead of the shooting, threatening to avenge the 2014 police deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by killing police officers.

'Police already conspicuous'

Dave Maass, an intelligence researcher with the nonprofit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, argues that regardless of Waze or any other traffic app, police are clearly identifiable as police because of their uniforms and squad car.

“Where police are by the side of the road is not a secret by any means,” he told FRANCE 24 on Wednesday”. “Their cars -- stripes on the side and sirens on top -- are designed to be conspicuous”.

Moustachioed caricatures

Maass says that the police have little chance of convincing Google, which is “probably sensitive to be seen in collaboration with the police or engaged in censorship,” and that legally, disabling the feature would constitute a breach of the First Amendment.

“People have the right to talk about [where the police are] and Google and Waze have the right to create a platform for that,” he said. “People have been sharing this information for decades. Before social media people were using CB radios. It’s not as if this is a novel thing.”

Surge in police hostility

John Thompson, the deputy executive director of the National Sheriffs' Association, argues that the increased targeting of police is what makes the app worrying.

"In the '70s and '60s, when we used CB radios, times were different," he told NPR radio on Wednesday. "People weren't assassinating police officers."

That fear is not exaggerated. Since the deaths of Lui and Ramos in December, police have gone to great lengths to express concern for their own safety, even imposing an unofficial weeks-long strike in New York City, where the NYPD argued it was unsafe to work (partly due to an apparent lack of support from Mayor Bill de Blasio in the latest development in an ongoing conflict between the two parties).

“It is an uncomfortable feeling knowing that your location is so readily available via a crowd-sourced app,” Anthony Lewis (not his real name), a patrol officer who works in the Westchester area of New York State, told FRANCE 24 on Thursday. Having used the app himself before joining the police, Lewis is sympathetic to drivers who want to avoid checkpoints, but he finds the role it played in the murders of Lui and Ramos “unnerving”.

“I don’t see much difference between Waze reporting where checkpoints are and people reporting [the same information] on Twitter,” he said. “But it makes it that much easier to target a police officer if someone with ill intentions wished to do so.”

Lewis cites a growing public hostility towards law enforcement that exploded following the police deaths of 18-year-old Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and 43-year-old Garner in New York. The mass protests that followed their deaths, and the failure of the authorities to bring the officers who caused them to justice, saw police cars set on fire and some demonstrators shouting “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!”

'Police don’t like being watched’

Lewis, who is African American, says he feels “like much more of a target now”.

He’s concerned, however, that targeting Waze will simply exacerbate tensions between the police and the public. “I'm sure the public will argue that cops are whining or playing the victim,” he said.

Maass agrees.

“One of the ironic things is that police argue pretty hard that people don’t have a right to privacy in the public sphere. Police can have license plate readers, use facial recognition programmes, and they don’t need a warrant or special permission to use this stuff because it’s out there and it’s public," he said.

“But when the tables are turned… Police have a history of pushing back against citizens who want to watch them. They don’t always have a sterling reputation when it comes to transparency or respecting the public’s right to record what happens in public view.”

On Tuesday, Waze responded to the safety concerns of police by saying that the app did not “track” police but gave a rough location of where they were spotted.

Waze spokeswoman Julie Mossler said the app was actually welcomed by many law enforcement agencies “to keep citizens safe, promote faster emergency response and help alleviate traffic congestion”.

But for the National Sheriffs Association, the feature is an affront to law enforcement. During an NSA meeting in Washington DC in December, a Virginia sheriff described the app as a “police-stalker”. Another, Sergio Kopelev of Southern California, said it was his “personal jihad” to get rid of it.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning