Navigation and location tracking apps are a dime a dozen. The best often update their features to take advantage of the latest technology. One of the most popular, though, is taking a time-tested concern for motorists everywhere and applying basic tracking elements to bring that concern into the current century.
The app in question here is called Waze, which is owned by Google, and the motorists’ collective concern is the location of police cruisers and officers. While using Waze, smartphone users can enter the location of a police officer they have spotted. In that instant, other app users can see the officer’s location and continue to verify his or her position in real time. If the officer moves and someone makes a note of it, all other Waze users can monitor that movement as updates persist.
The most recent news concerning this ability of the mobile app is the concern of police officers themselves. According to NPR, a host of officers, including Sergio Kopelev, a reserve sheriff in Orange County, Calif., and Charlie Beck, the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, are not happy about the fact that they can be tracked. They say the app can endanger the lives of police officers because anyone wishing to target and harm an officer may have an advantage which helps them achieve that goal.
Certainly, most readers here would not say they are out to harm police. It is likely that they just want to avoid a speed trap or navigate around the scene of an accident or arrest — all lofty goals when compared to the intent to harm a person or persons. But when confronted with the logic that police trackers, in the form of CB radios or similar tech, has been around for years, some officers still insist that what we have on our hands today is dangerous and therefore should be taken out of the Waze app. Now, the National Sheriff’s Association is reaching out to Google to find a “middle ground,” in the words of John Thompson, the Association’s deputy executive director.
The biggest set of problems I see with finding that middle ground revolve around the nature of free speech and around the vast number of location apps currently on the market. Search for the word “location” in the Google Play store and you will find dozens of results. Search for “maps” and you will find dozens more. “Speed trap” provides even more apps users can browse. The point here is that there is no lack of apps which could implement a feature that tracks the location of certain people or items. Whether or not those people are police officers or those items are cop cars is determined by the app developers and their audiences, and it appears there is no shortage of interest for such features.
Furthermore, it is questionable how there could be a “middle ground” with this issue which is grounded in app users’ allowance to share information. Dave Maass, a researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, points out that there is hypocrisy in officers’ insistence that location tracking be removed from Waze while at the same time law enforcement argues for their need to read license plates and complete facial recognition. That is technology at its finest (Industry Buzz explored the topic of facial recognition this past July), yet the general public is still expected to defer to the need (?) for law enforcement to be at the top of the pecking order.
Google’s statement on the issue suggests that there will not be any large changes coming to Waze in the near future. The L.A. Times notes that Google has argued that the app does not even “track” police — it only provides a rough estimate of their location at any given point in time.
Even if Google did make sweeping changes, it would only be a matter of time, as I have pointed out, before another app or developer stepped in to take its place. This is a battle without a proper end until federal or state legislation makes it illegal to complete such tracking, or rough estimating, as described above. There is reason to believe that it falls under the same sort of legal allowance, described here by the Huffington Post, for the public to film or take photos of police as long as photographers do not impede any enforcement of law.
It did not appear from the news at NPR that the challenge from the National Sheriff’s Association to Waze would include any legal challenge to the authority that citizens have to locate people or objects on a digital map. That could be another story for another time. For now, though, I will not bet on Waze backing down or being the last of its kind on the app market.
Image courtesy of Cliff via Wikimedia Commons