Waze App Calls In Heavy Debate

The Bedford County, Va Sheriff has become a vocal leader in a national campaign of law-enforcement officials against the popular app Waze. At a meeting of the National Sheriffs Association, he said that Waze's police-reporting feature is a "police stalker." The Bedford Sheriff asserted that Waze puts officers' lives in danger from "police killers" who can find where their targets are parked. The sheriff said:

"The police community needs to coordinate an effort to have the [Waze] 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,"

The Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police join Bedford with concerns over Waze's impact on police safety. New York Senator Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., expressed concern with Waze and other mobile apps that identify police location and specifically drunk driving checkpoints,

Waze is an IOS and Android app that combines GPS functions with social networking. The result is that users get real-time traffic updates and warnings about road hazards. Users report what they see - including police. Those following a map can see accidents, traffic, construction, and parked police cars. The app does not distinguish whether the police cars are stopped for any specific purpose. (e.g. sobriety checkpoints or speed traps). Waze estimates that it has 50 million users in 200 countries. In 2013 Google purchased Waze for $966 million. The app now utilizes several key components of Googles ubiquitous map app.

Despite police concerns, there are no known or reported connections between any attack on police and the Waze app.

In light of the fact that there is no proven connection between Waze and officer safety it appears that police departments are more concerned with lost ticket revenue than safety. Nationally, speeding tickets generate $6.3 billion in revenue each year. Police and local governments rely on that money. Waze clearly warns users of speed traps. Drivers slow down and drive safer in areas where they have been alerted to police.

Waze responds by saying that the company: (1) works with police departments and (2) thinks "deeply about safety and security." A Waze spokesman noted that "Most users tend to drive more carefully when they believe law enforcement is nearby," If the primary police concern is highway safety, they should prefer that drivers slow down and not speed rather than speed and get caught. In fact NBC, Miami reports that local police have begun reporting fake police sightings and speed traps to undermine the app.

Waze users have a clear First Amendment right to describe their observations (including police location). Police opposition to Waze is hypocritical but expected. In 2012 a Missouri police officer wrote a motorist a ticket for flashing his headlights to warn other drivers of police presence. A federal judge predictably ruled that this was a violation of that driver's right to free speech. Police departments use software similar to Waze to collect license plate information. Police have also used social media for amber alerts and manhunts. Although police are comfortable tracking citizens using 21st-century technology they are strangely uncomfortable when citizens use the same tools to recognize where police locations.

Any legislative attempt to block social networking about police location would be contrary to the U.S. Constitution. Courts could only uphold an anti-free speech law by narrowly squeezing it into a judicially recognized exception. For the foreseeable future, Waze's users can safely use the app to make safe driving decisions.

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