As someone who does a lot of driving and depends greatly upon the Waze app (Waze has roughly 50 million users in over 200 countries around the world), this bit of news struck a nerve with me. Law enforcement agencies across the country are coming out against the app, saying that would-be cop killers could use it to stalk officers while they are doing their jobs.
But before we get to the complaints, let’s talk a little bit about what Waze actually does. First and foremost, Waze operates like a traditional GPS app, giving you turn-by-turn directions to a destination, voice prompts with spoken street names, ETA, etc. This is typical stuff you’ll find in apps like Apple Maps or Google Maps. However, what sets Waze apart are the crowd-sourced features that allow users to report road construction, traffic jams, accidents, speed cameras, road hazards, weather updates, and even gas prices. All of this information is updated in near-real-time and makes for a “living” map that provides users with a wealth of information as they travel to their destination. Users can even earn points for reporting accidents or vehicles that may be left stranded on the side of the road.
But the feature that has law enforcement officials hot and bothered is the ability to report police activity on a given road (users can mark police as “hidden” or “visible”). More often than not, these are user-generated reports that alert other drivers to looming speed traps or to alert drivers to a police officer that may have already pulled over a driver and has his or her light flashing. Although I don’t usually travel too far above the posted speed limit (I typically hover at 5 to 7 mph over on the highways) the police alerts have saved me from getting a ticket on more than a few occasions.
But what Waze users see as an essential feature in a much-loved app, law enforcement agencies are seeing it as an easy way for criminals to locate and attack police officers. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck contacted Google, the maker of Waze, to explain that it could be “misused by those with criminal intent to endanger police officers and the community."
Beck pointed to the case in New York City, where Ismaaiyl Brinsley gunned down two NYPD officers. Although no evidence has been obtained to link Waze to Brinkley’s positively despicable actions, Beck was wholly convinced, stating, "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.”
Other law enforcement officials such as Bedford County (VA) Sheriff Mike Brown also expressed concern over officer safety, stating that Google should “remove this feature from the application even before any litigation or statutory action.”
Civil liberties groups on the other hand don’t see the harm in the app, as citizens out in the public easily detect law enforcement vehicles and Waze simply aggregates this information for drivers. Besides, it’s not like drivers are sticking GPS units on police cars and tracking them (those are actions left for police departments) and police information on Waze can often be out of date. While I’d say that 50 percent of the time an officer is lying in wait for the next speeder — right where the app indicated — the rest of the time the officer has already moved on to nab the next unsuspecting driver.
It’s understandable that law enforcement agencies would be on edge given high-profile cases involving the killing of police officers, but this particular campaign seems to be misguided. If anything, more drivers using Waze -- and its police alerts -- mean less revenue for police departments.