In traffic congested cities like Los Angeles, Waze is a technological savior. The app provides GPS navigation that’s powered by its community of users, routing drivers more quickly and effeciently based on real-time traffic updates. The app also encourages users to input their own data about the world around them, alerting other users about road conditions, car accidents, traffic stops and other problems that might slow traffic on an otherwise recommended route. One of Waze’s main features is the ability to track the presence of police officers. This feature helps drivers avoid speed traps and traffic stops, or simply lets them know when squad cars are in the relative area.
Although these community-driven features made Waze an immense success in the tech world and led to a $1.1 billion Google acquisition in 2013, law enforcement officials have taken issue with the ability of users to track police location. According to the Associated Press, the LAPD issued a formal complaint to Google asking the company to suspend the police-tracking feature on the app. In a letter addressed to Google’s chief executive dated Dec. 30, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck claimed that Waze could be “misused by those with criminal intent to endanger police officers and the community.”
This safety concern stems from the high-profile Dec. 20 murder of two NYPD officers in Brooklyn, who Beck claims were targeted using Waze. The shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, allegedly posted screenshots of his Waze app depicting the police icons on Instagram in the weeks leading up to his attack. Beck believes that his own staff could be sought out and targeted using the technology.
It’s a stretch to make Waze part of the ongoing conversation about police abuse, especially considering investigators found that Brinsley had already ditched his phone two miles from the scene of the Brooklyn attack. A large community of users has been using the app the way its creators intended for several years, and it probably has made roads a little bit safer for police rather than the opposite. More dangerous than anything is the general way in which drivers are called to interact with Waze while operating their vehicle. The app smartly saves itself with a legal disclaimer suggesting that passengers handle the navigation and data input, but there’s no way to enforce that rule and it’s generally assumed that those actually using the app are behind the wheel.
It is interesting, however, to think about how Waze can inadvertently help people accomplish what protesters around the country have been calling for: a better way to police the police force. Knowing the exact whereabouts of every police officer would provide an unprecedented level of transparency that could have some dangerous consequences (violent criminals being able to escape law enforcement being the main concern) but would also provide a higher level of accountability. Community reporting of police locations and activity returns power to the citizens the police force is supposed to be protecting and serving.
Concern about Waze’s police-tracking technology has spread beyond L.A. County. Bedford County, Virginia, Sheriff Mike Brown recently raised the issue with a threat of legal action at the National Sheriffs' Association meeting in Washington. “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,” Brown said. Waze spokeswoman Julie Mossler has dismissed these concerns, claiming that the company actually works with police departments to ensure all safety needs are met. “These relationships keep citizens safe, promote faster emergency response and help alleviate traffic congestion,” she said.
The police response to Waze is predictably hypocritical in a time during which tension between citizens and law enforcement officials is at a relative high. As Think Progress reports, the NYPD has been using online surveillance tactics like facial recognition that links protesters to their social media accounts, as well as other strategies like smartphone tracking and heat maps. But they’re unable to accept the fact that a network of drivers has found a way to outsmart their traffic enforcement simply by reporting the whereabouts of squad cars to one another. Any GPS-based technology such as Waze could be misused when placed in the wrong hands; that’s the sad but unavoidable reality of the times in which we live. For now, the app should be able to remain what it is: a useful tool for reducing traffic congestion and possibly a hope for a better way to monitor police in the future.