Monday, March 30, 2015
Popular traffic app raises concern for law enforcement
Posted: Sunday, March 22, 2015
When she finds herself stuck in traffic, Sharon Sweeney consults her favorite mobile app to find out what’s behind the backup, how long she’ll be delayed and if there is a shortcut.
She has no interest in seeing the location of police cars along her route.
“I’m not typically a law-breaking driver ...,” the Bristol resident said. “Anyhow, in cases where I may be speeding a bit, it’d be too dangerous to try to use my phone.”
But some in law enforcement believe the popular Waze smartphone app, which lets drivers report the location of both hidden and visible police cars and other information that might be helpful to travelers, compromises officer safety and allows would-be bad guys to stalk police.
The app has become the latest target in a growing controversy over the use of social media to record and spread information about police activity. It’s a debate rooted in the issue of public safety versus expectations of privacy in public places.
Waze’s parent company, Google, is under pressure to remove the feature, especially in this time of tensions between the public and law enforcement surrounding alleged cases of police brutality.
Civil liberties and free speech advocates, though, argue that Waze and its users aren’t doing anything illegal.
They cite a 2012 federal Justice Department confirmation that the public has a constitutional right to record police in public. They also argue that Waze is no different from other social media outlets such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter that are used to disseminate real-time information.
The mobile phone application uses software that combines GPS navigation and crowd sourcing to provide its 50 million users in 200 countries with interactive, real-time traffic alerts, along with the police car feature. Drivers can report warnings about the location of backups, accidents, hazards, gas prices, traffic camera locations and disabled vehicles.
The concerns about Waze and police safety arose during a recent meeting of the National Sheriffs Association, where it was noted that Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the Maryland man accused in the ambush shooting deaths of two New York City police officers in December, posted a screenshot from Waze on his Instagram account along with messages threatening police.
Investigators don’t believe Brinsley used Waze to ambush the officers, in part because he reportedly tossed his cellphone more than two miles from where the officers were shot.
Nonetheless, the association has launched a campaign against Waze, contending it risks officer safety and interferes with the police’s ability to catch drivers violating the law. It is also hosting training sessions and webinars to teach police more about the app.
Among the biggest Waze critics is Charlie Beck, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. He has accused Google of endangering officers and helping criminals by publicizing the position of patrol cars. “It is not always in the public’s best interest to know where police are operating,” Beck said at a January news conference on the issue.
PUBLIC SERVICE OR DANGER
Google isn’t the first big tech corporation to feel heat from law enforcement over social media applications.
In 2011, Apple ditched its application that alerted users to DUI checkpoints at the request of four U.S. senators. Under pressure, Nokia, another communication company, removed its now defunct sobriety check tracking function Trapster.
In 2012, the ACLU chapters in New Jersey and New York each released a mobile app designed to allow users to secretly videotape and audio record police encounters. The apps — called Police Tape and Stop and Frisk — include features that notify nearby users when the app is activated and pinpoints the exact location of police activity. The apps also allow users to send copies of what they record to the ACLU for review.
Some Bucks County police chiefs understand the concerns about officer safety and public interactions. But they also recognize the expectation of privacy, especially in public places, is lower for police.
“I agree with other chiefs of police — they’re doing what any good chief would do — looking out for the safety and well-being of their officers. From that perspective, sure, it’s an officer safety concern,” Middletown Police Chief Joseph Bartorilla said.
But, he added, the courts will ultimately decide what violates an officer’s privacy or presents a significant safety risk to on-duty officers.
Bristol Township Acting Chief Ralph Johnson said he isn’t familiar with Waze, but called any technology that provides the public with locations of patrol cars a potential safety issue.
“I wouldn’t want the location of my guys’ police cars known,” he added.
Others argue that sharing information about speed traps, DUI checkpoints or other police activity is an ingrained part of road culture, and say the recent complaints are nothing new. Critics also say it’s hypocritical for law enforcement to try to get rid of tools that let people monitor the police since officers have been using similar tracking technologies for years to monitor law-abiding Americans.
David Maass, of the digital civil liberties advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, likened Waze and other social media tools to high-tech versions of high-beam flashes, radar detectors and Citizen Band radios that have long been used to warn drivers about police presence.
“This is pretty much just an update to that. It’s not like this is identifying undercover cops. These are people who see high-profile vehicles,” Maass added. “Police think it would be easy to do their job if people aren’t watching their actions. Is it about officer safety or preserving speed traps?” There is nothing that says if Waze shuts this down, 10 new apps won’t come up.”
Some local criminal defense attorneys agree.
“I don’t see what the big deal is there,” said Jason Rubinstein, who has a Middletown practice. “If someone has (harming police) in their minds, the existence or absence of Waze isn’t going make a difference. It’s not like Waze is giving people this idea.”
Former Bucks County prosecutor David Zellis, a big Waze fan, believes providing the location of police is a public safety service because it makes people slow down.
“In terms of police on the roadways, anything that makes people slow down is fine,” said Zellis, who now practices private criminal defense law. “If someone is really determined to (stalk police,) they’ll use another app.”
The newspaper was unsuccessful in reaching Waze spokeswoman Julie Mossler for comment. But in other news stories surrounding the app controversy, Mossler has said posting information about the whereabouts of police makes roads safer and promotes faster emergency response by pinpointing locations.
Many local Waze users say they aren’t familiar with the police tracking feature.
“I use it just so I know where the traffic jams are,” said Maryanne Sciulli, of Collegeville. “I don’t care where the cops are sitting, and do, in fact, welcome their presence. I wish there were more of them to baby-sit the idiots on Route 422.”
Bensalem resident Nicole Giovetisis said her family uses Waze during summer trips to the Jersey Shore to find the reason for the traffic backups they encounter. She never uses the police feature.
“I was never really concerned about police presence,” she said. “It never even crossed my mind to use it for that.”
For Bristol Township resident Jeremiah Bright, Waze is no different from flashing high beams, which is considered a court-protected freedom of speech.
“I don’t see how this differs from that, it’s not a tracking device for police,” he said. “Someone mentions they saw a police vehicle on the road at this location — most of time the unit has moved on from the report time because (police) don’t sit in one spot the whole shift.”