Some police think Waze is dangerous and want Google to pull the plug on one of its key features. The social/traffic app is designed to provide drivers with information on highway congestion, accidents, and construction, but also allows them to tag the location of police speed traps with an icon indicating whether or not the police are hidden or visible from the highway.
This function, according to some in law enforcement, amounts to a “police stalking app.” LA Police Chief Charlie Beck wrote to Google CEO Larry Page last month urging him to disable the feature:
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. I look forward to opening a dialogue with you as to how Google can prevent the future misuse of the Waze app to track law enforcement officers, thereby avoiding any future deaths or injury. 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.
There is nothing to link Waze to any deaths or injury, but police are concerned because last month Islamic radical Ismaaiyl Brinsley posted a picture from Waze which showed the police icons. Brinsley disposed of his phone long before he ambushed and murdered two police officers in New York, but the connection is too close for some.
But not all police are buying the anti-Waze argument because, as Sgt. Heather Randol told the San Jose Mercury News, “We want to be seen.”
And that is the point, isn’t it? A visible police presence is part of the purpose of law enforcement and helps keep the peace. Cops aren’t ninjas, and the circumstances in which they need to remain unseen for legitimate public safety reasons are fairly limited. And, no, I don’t consider speed traps “legitimate public safety reasons.”
The police function in various ways: to discourage crime by their visible presence and intervention, to investigate crime after it has been committed, and as an armed revenue collection wing of the government. It’s this last function that rankles the public, because they realize the minor citations and tickets have minimal relevance to public safety and are just there to fill government coffers. When New York police stopped writing these nuisance tickets for a few weeks in protest over the murder of two of their brother officers, the city lost $5 million by some estimates.
The idea that Wave is some kind of Grindr for cop-killers kind of misses the main point: it shouldn’t be hard to find a police officer. They should be visible. Many people feel relieved when they see an officer. Well, at least many white people do: the experience of policing among minority communities is considerably more troubling, particularly for black men. Indeed, looked at from the perspective of a young, innocent black man, Waze may be key tool for avoiding harassment and potential police brutality.
In ordinary practice, the police have few legitimate reasons to conceal their presence. And they have no right at all to tell people they cannot share information with others about that presence any more than they could tell someone not to flash their lights to indicate a speed trap or use a CB radio for the same purpose.
Law enforcement routinely claims that anything happening in public has no expectation of privacy, yet want an exception for their own behavior under some vague and hazy fear about “police stalking.” They’re already deploying licence plate scanners, and are preparing to introduce facial scanners. The gulf between the rights of the watched and those of the watchers is growing ever-wider
Aside from the admittedly horrifying and tragic, but also isolated, case of the New York police murders, is their any indication that “police stalking” is a widespread practice? And if so, is it such a dangerous and immanent threat that it warrants a constitutional challenge about free communication among citizens?