Navigating the Security of Police Tracking – the Waze App

January 29, 2015

Humans have found a myriad of ways to use technology to ease the sting of pesky inconveniences. We have apps that let you turn off your stove. Apps that control your tv when you lose the remote, and apps to pay for your latte when you forget your wallet in the car. Waze is one such app that aims to reduce time spent in traffic. Waze is a Google owned, free app used by 50 million people in over 200 countries (admittedly, myself included). It is a combination GPS and social media platform that utilizes the power of crowdsourcing to show the fastest driving route using real time traffic information supplied by users.
For the uninitiated, Waze offers a brief video explanation, but in short, users report commuting issues (traffic, accidents, hazards in the road, etc.) Reported information appears on the navigation map of driver’s around the reporting user in the form of pop up icons indicating what drivers should be on the lookout for.
In addition to helping users get where they want to go, Waze also offers a police-tracking feature. Waze allows users to report seeing a police officer on their drive, thus alerting users on the same route to shape up their driving before they pass by. Users can select ‘visible’ or ‘hidden’ when reporting an officer, and after passing where the officer is supposed to be, others can confirm whether or not the office was still there.
To the average American driver battling crowded roads, and commutes that can stretch into long hours, and creep into family time, this app is a much-appreciated tool to combat the 5 o’clock blues. However, others remain less pleased. Police are mounting a campaign to get Waze to remove the police-tracking feature, out of concerns that it threatens officer safety. The issue was recently raised by several law enforcement officers at the National Sheriff’s Association winter conference in Washington.

Officers say that the police-tracking feature leaves police vulnerable to stalking, making patrolman sitting ducks for those looking to attack police.

Although there are no known connections between Waze and attacks on police, those concerned say that it’s only a matter of time. Such concerns may not be purely paranoia. Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the man who killed two New York City police officers in December 2014 as they were eating lunch in their squad car, instagrammed a picture of officer location from the Waze app, saying that the he loves that the app will “#WarnABrother”. Police do not believe that Waze was used in the attack because his phone was found 2 miles from the shooting. Nevertheless, the connection demonstrates the obvious danger that officers may face if this information was used for the wrong reasons.
This isn’t the first case of law enforcement putting up a fight against police tracking technology. In 2011, four U.S. Senators asked Apple to remove apps that alert users to upcoming drunk driving checkpoints, and Nokia removed Trapster, one the most popular checkpoint alert apps. However, Nuala O’Connor of the Center for Democracy and Technology says that it would be inappropriate for Google to disable this kind of person-to-person communication just because it reports publicly available information about police. However, she points out that the real danger of Waze might be privacy issues for users.
The social media feature of Waze allows users to share their location with friends, and see other cars around them who are users. Waze leaves it up to the users to protect themselves through their privacy settings. This opens up the possibility of other users finding a cash of information on other unknowing users, potentially including where you live, work, and your typical driving routes. That kind of information could take road rage to whole new level. Furthermore, Waze’s privacy policy states that it may share your personal information with any company or organization with whom it is affiliated. However, to their credit, Waze isn’t trying to hide the ball on this one. They openly state in their privacy policy that “[t]he content that you share to all users is neither private nor confidential and you should not have any expectation of privacy with respect to it.”
The technology Waze uses has the capacity to help a crowded world move more efficiently, and that shouldn’t be disregarded. However, the prudence of constant collective monitoring of police movement should be the focus of serious consideration. There is something tempting about the transparency this kind of technology allows. After all, police are permitted to track people’s travel using GPS without a warrant because their movements are public. In a way, the next logical step argues that if police can track people without their knowledge via GPS, that people should be able to tell other people about their whereabouts via GPS.
However, there’s an obvious benefit to allowing police to be able to observe motorists candidly, and not just when they are on their best behavior. That guy who just cut you off? You want him to get busted for running a red light. The motorcyclist riding down the center line? I can’t pull him over and tell him how dangerous that is, but I like knowing that a police officer might see him do the same thing half a mile up the road. And while I think it may be premature, in light of current attitudes towards law enforcement, I can’t say that I don’t understand police officer’s fearing this kind of technology in the wrong hands.
All in all, crowdsourcing GPS has the potential to provide a real service, but there are serious safety and privacy concerns to be navigated before reaching a conclusion.