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An app can “be misused by those with criminal intent to endanger police officers and the community”, claims a letter sent to Google last week.

The app in question: the social navigation app Waze: A Social GPS For Your Daily Commute [iOS] Waze: A Social GPS For Your Daily Commute [iOS] Out of all the navigation apps that are currently on the market, Waze may very well have the best concept. The only catch is that it doesn't have a "big name" backing it (like Google... Read More , Waze. The letter, from LAPD police chief Charlie Beck, caused a stir last week by asking Google to remove the police tracking feature – mostly used by drivers hoping to avoid speeding tickets.

Amongst the criticisms levelled at Waze’s police tracking feature, Beck argued that it puts officers in danger. Is there any merit to this claim?

What Is Waze, And What Does It Do?

Waze is an app that can make your commute better 5 Apps To Improve Your Daily Commute 5 Apps To Improve Your Daily Commute Many of us spend more days per year commuting than we do on leave. What if we could speed up or improve that commute by using technology? It turns out we can. Read More . Waze users are able to report a variety of issues on the roads, including traffic jams, breakdowns and, yes, police officers. Other app users can react accordingly, forewarned that something is happening on the road ahead.

Traffic jam? Take another route. Break down? Help out. Police officer? Slow down.



Waze was originally developed as a competitor to Google Maps and Apple Maps (which is now much improved Is Apple Maps a Reliable Navigator Yet? Is Apple Maps a Reliable Navigator Yet? After replacing Google's navigation, Apple Maps endured a rocky start, heaps of criticism and some very funny jokes – but has all been forgiven? Read More ) but was bought out by Google. Surprisingly, Google has let the app continue as is, rather than shutting it down like they normally do – case and point, my favourite Mac email app, Sparrow Sparrow - A New Gmail Desktop Client for Mac Users Sparrow - A New Gmail Desktop Client for Mac Users Read More , which is now dead as a dodo.

Waze has more than 50 million users around the world, many of whom are in the United States.

Why Do Police Think Waze Is Dangerous?

Beck contends that Waze can be used to track police officers. He argues that people who want to harm officers could then use it to find them. The recent shooting of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu obviously makes this a sensitive issue for police officers and an emotionally compelling argument.

Writing in the Atlantic, however, Conor Friedersdorf takes it apart. Friedersdorf points out that there are many easier ways for people to find on-duty police officers than Waze.

“Cops tend to congregate at police stations. They make regular appearances at the courthouse. They drive around town in marked cars wearing uniforms and congregate informally in the same parking lots day after day”, he argues. “If someone intent on locating a police officer still found themselves unable to do so, which strains credulity, there is a widely known, pre-mobile phone app called 911 that anyone can use, anywhere in any American city, to summon police immediately to any location.”

I live in Ireland. Here we have a fundamentally different relationship with the police force. Since the early 20th century they’ve been, for the most part, entirely unarmed – and this creates a different dynamic. Similarly, because guns aren’t as widely available for purchase, police officers don’t really need to fear the general public. So I was entirely prepared to see this from the officers’ point of view, however, I’ve found that difficult.

Friedersdorf isn’t the only person to point out flaws in Beck’s arguments. In a recent NPR piece , Dave Maass of the Electronic Frontier Foundation — an organisation whose work Forget WhatsApp: 6 Secure Communication Apps You've Probably Never Heard Of Forget WhatsApp: 6 Secure Communication Apps You've Probably Never Heard Of The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a lobby group dedicated to "defending civil liberties in the digital world". They maintain the Secure Messaging Scorecard, which makes for worrying reading for fans of instant messaging. Read More I’ve used before — explains that police spotting is nothing new.

“Waze is just basically the new CB radio,” says Maass.

Waze themselves have shot back. They take issue with the very terms of the debate. While Beck claims that Waze can “track” police officers, the team behind the app point out that it can only show the general area where a police officer has been seen. If they move on, the mark stays in the same place until someone updates it. Not a particularly reliable method for anything more than warning others about speed traps.

The True Danger of Waze

Using your mobile phone while driving is dangerous. It’s illegal to use your phone — whether that’s texting, using apps or even making phone calls — while driving in much of Europe, including Ireland. In the US the situation is rapidly changing: while you might not go to jail Will You Go To Jail For Mobile Phone Use While Driving? [Opinion] Will You Go To Jail For Mobile Phone Use While Driving? [Opinion] One of the reasons why the smartphone has become popular is its mobility. Now you can read email, browse the web or watch videos from almost anywhere. This has naturally translated to in-car use, resulting... Read More for using your phone, it is starting to be considered a crime in different States.

While Waze is unlikely to get a police officer in trouble, if they catch you using it, you very well could be facing a fine.

So What’s It All About?

As much as I agree with Friedersdorf’s take on the quality of the arguments against Waze, I disagree with a part of his conclusion. He feels that “some of the opposition to Waze by police brass is grounded in the fact that, when its automated voice announces that there’s a cop car ahead, drivers slow down” and that, “If the mottos on the sides of police cars stated the whole truth, they’d proclaim, ‘To protect and serve–and, during down time, to generate revenue for the city.'”

While it’s true that speed traps generate revenue, personally, I feel the arguments against Waze stem from genuine concern by police officers. Is their concern misplaced? Yes, but the relationship between the US public and police officers has been tainted by several high profile incidents in the past year. The backlash against Waze’s police spotting feature stems from this tension.

Removing the police tracking feature from Waze won’t do anything to make police officers safer. What I think the police should be doing instead of writing letters to Google is far far beyond the remit of this article.

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  1. laotzu22
    February 8, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    sorry, that should read Mossad, Israeli secret service..

  2. laotzu22
    February 8, 2015 at 8:15 pm

    I heard that Waze was a concept started by Massod ,the Israeli secret police ,so i would be VERY wary about using Waze..

  3. WD
    February 7, 2015 at 7:42 pm

    It is interesting that the police do not like being surveilled. The police are public servants. We should know where they are.

    It should not be a crime to tell someone where you saw the police- especially if you have a First Amendment.

    As to drivers using Waze while operating a vehicle, the app doesn't run unless you attest to not being the driver and warns against operating the app while driving.

  4. Doris
    February 7, 2015 at 6:53 pm

    Traffic on the highways is dangerous. In an effort to keep the roads as safe as possible cops should catch speeders and reckless drivers. The speed limit is plenty fast enough. If you don't want a ticket then don't speed. Thanks to police officers for doing your job to keep us safe.

  5. Jeff
    February 7, 2015 at 2:34 pm

    There has to be accountability, it's a matter of all citizens looking out for each other. I really don't care if you have a badge, your no better than me.

  6. Clinton Pittman
    February 6, 2015 at 11:35 pm

    I suspect "Chris" is very young, perhaps too young to remember 9/11 and has never had a cop friend or had a random cop help him out. I felt a bit like that when I was a teenager, but I've learned better. Cops are all kinds of people, and you can't use your "Dr. Phil" insight to psychoanalyze everyone in uniform.

    However, it seems unlikely that people will use Waze to stalk cops, though I understand the concern after the recent cop murders.

  7. Clinton Pittman
    February 6, 2015 at 11:29 pm

    It's "case IN point" not "case and point." Also, it's "centers ON" or "revolves AROUND"; don't mix them up. If you're going to be a writer, I figured I'd help. You don't want to lose a job because an editor is as picky as I am.

  8. Bill
    February 5, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    I was driving north on Interstate 85 from North Carolina. When I came into Virginia I noticed a VA State Trooper in the median and instinctively hit my brake. I wasn't speeding. The trooper came along side my car in the left lane and I could see him look at my iPhone sitting in a dashboard holder. He kept looking at it and was not looking as intently on the road ahead. An on ramp came up and he stayed next to me as he looked while a car tried to merge onto the highway. He was obliviously running me into the back of the merging car instead of allowing me to move to the left.

    Sorry I fully believe police in Virginia are far more worried about making quota than any safety issue. They should welcome the awareness that Waze creates of their location so traffic moves over when they are stopped on the shoulder. It isn't very accurate if they really knew anything about how it works.

    I have been told by many cops that there are basically two types of people who get into law enforcement 1) Those who want to do something to serve and protect and 2) those who have authority issues and want to control others. The last group is the one that's causing all the current issues for the good cops.

    • Chris
      February 6, 2015 at 12:08 pm

      Only one type of person stays a cop, those who have authority issues and want to control others. The ones who become cops to "protect and serve" are quickly disenfranchised and quit the force when they realize protecting and serving are not even part of the job.

      The only ones left are the ones that keep doing what cops do... harass and extort, befriend and betray.

      Oh, and then there are the psychos that want to get away with murder...

      They join the police department when they want to get a kill.
      They join the Swat team when they're serious about getting a kill.

  9. -b
    February 5, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    Cops dont really care about the capabilities of waze. They care about respect. Freedom of speech strikes contempt in the cop heart. It is the 'us vs them' mentality that modern Police departments have adopted. It should be 'serve and protect the community' but instead many departments have abandoned this philosophy for 'citizens must learn to respect our authority'. And they will challenge anyone or any organization who facilitates a lack of fear or lack of respect.

  10. dragonmouth
    February 5, 2015 at 1:29 am

    Any communication device, from smoke signals to CBs, ham radio, flashing mirrors, landline phones, smartphones, etc. can be and are used to track cops. Will the cops insist on all these devices being outlawed?

  11. Staraboosh
    February 4, 2015 at 10:41 pm

    I don't really know what you think, but Waze is just an awesome GPS Tracking app that allows users to find others in a map and get socialized. Well, the security of this app should be reviewed more because it may cause trouble to Police Officers.

  12. Joe
    February 4, 2015 at 9:42 pm

    It makes it hard for them "to collect and serve" so they don't like it. There is no safety improvement with red light cameras, but they bring in the money so they still exist.

  13. Aquariuzz
    February 4, 2015 at 8:03 pm

    Great. Now the cops are going to start using Waze to remove the speed traps users put up.

    Of course it might be hard to do with their flip phones.

    • -b
      February 5, 2015 at 1:22 pm

      The average cop starts at 75k per year pre benefits. They have smartphones..

    • Bruce E
      February 7, 2015 at 3:17 am

      Where did you pull that number from? I'm guessing that your arm might be speckled with brown.

      According to payscale, the national average for the US is $47k. That is not the average starting salary either, that is for the full range of cops ($31k-81k).

      Payscale's sample is pretty small, so let's go with BLS instead for a sample about 300x larger. Here we find the MEAN pay for cops is $58.7k. The full range of salaries runs from $32k up to $90k.

      In Mesa, AZ, the pay scale ranges from $51k to $76k. It is similar in Chandler, AZ.

      So your claim of a $75k pre-bennie starting salary is bogus, at least for the majority of the US. It may hold for NYC or some cities in California, but not where most people live.

  14. Hmmm
    February 4, 2015 at 6:24 pm

    Buy a police scanner and you can find the police, this argument about safety is not holding water!

  15. Jon
    February 4, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    So where are these cops to rally against people being able to buy guns freely and traffic them to states with good gun laws, carry license in some states, etc..etc..

    Oh right.. that doesn't affect traffic ticket revenue. It actually creates police force jobs by creating a more dangerous citizenry.

    This is complete BS.

    • Mike_M
      February 5, 2015 at 3:53 am


  16. Bob
    February 4, 2015 at 3:51 pm

    If I have the right to bear arms of violence then I should have the right to bear arms of non-violence.

    • Chris
      February 6, 2015 at 12:14 pm

      Cops are crying about being outed, this is really cutting into their highway robbery revenues.