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Cops Think Waze's Police-Tracking Feature Is Putting Them In Danger

Waze sticker at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA (Photo by Travis Wise via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
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After two New York police officers were murdered last month, some cops are now afraid that the Waze traffic app could be used to track their whereabouts and put them in danger. Others are arguing that law enforcement is just wrong about this theory.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck wrote a letter to Google, Inc. (Waze's parent company) on Dec. 30 voicing his concerns about the real-time, crowd-sourced app that's used to track a variety of road issues, including high-traffic areas, speed traps, car accidents, and even if a police car is nearby, reported AP. Beck wrote that he was afraid that the police-tracking feature could be "misused by those with criminal intent to endanger police officers and the community."

He referenced how he believes Ismaaiyl Brinsley—the man who shot and killed NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu before taking his own life on Dec. 20—had been using Waze to track down law enforcement since early December. Before the shooting, Brinsley posted on Instagram a screenshot of Waze along with threats to law enforcement. However, investigators don't believe this theory partly because Brinsley's cellphone was found more than two miles away from the site of the shooting.

VentureBeat says that law enforcement's fears are based on a misunderstanding of how the app works. While Waze allows users to drop a pin on a map showing where they've spotted an officer, it's a static feature and doesn't actually track police or follow them. Waze spokeswoman Julie Mossler told the L.A. Times that it doesn't give an exact location, either.

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"We think very deeply about safety and security and work in partnership with the NYPD and other police and departments of transportation all over the world... to help municipalities better understand what's happening in their cities in real time," Mossler said. "These relationships keep citizens safe, promote faster emergency response and help alleviate traffic congestion. Police partners support Waze and its features, including reports of police presence, because most users tend to drive more carefully when they believe law enforcement is nearby."

However, Beck isn't the only one voicing his concerns about the app. Sheriff Mike Brown of Bedford County, Virginia spoke out about this issue at a National Sheriffs' Association meeting in Washington Jan. 23. "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," he said.

As of Monday, Beck still hasn''t received a response from Google, Inc., and the tech company has not commented about the situation.

There are others who feel it's fair for us to keep tabs on police officers. Electronic Freedom Foundation spokesman Steve Maass told VentureBeat that it's ironic that law enforcement is saying the Waze police-tracking function is a problem given that officers justify using public surveillance tools like license plate scanning and facial recognition technology to track citizens in public.

"Individuals have the right to share information about police officers who are on duty and in public," ACLU's Lee Rowland told VentureBeat. "Shutting down the public's right to exchange information is not an effective or constitutional method for ensuring the safety of law enforcement."