Waze, the popular navigation app boasting more than 50 million users worldwide, has a new critic: police officers. Over the past few weeks, law enforcement officials have been urging the app and its owner, Google, to disable a feature that allows users to report when they've spotted a police officer, in real time, for all other Waze users to see.
Sergio Kopelev, a reserve sheriff in Orange County, Calif., is one of the law enforcement officials behind the push to remove Waze's police tracker. He says he first discovered the feature through his family.
"In early December, or mid-December, I saw my wife using the app when she picked me up from the airport," Kopelev tells NPR. "I saw her tag a location of a police officer. And then as the officer was moving, I saw her update the location. ... She told me about Waze, and I said, 'Look, this isn't good.' "
Police Ask Waze To Stop
After that day, Kopelev reached out to Waze directly. He made posts about the feature on Facebook. And he eventually gave a talk about the app and its police tracker to the National Sheriffs' Association's annual convention. His talk there led to even more outcry from officials and a good amount of media coverage, but even before that conference, police around the country had been speaking out about it.
In late December, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck sent an open letter to Google CEO Larry Page, saying that the app endangers officers' lives. "I am concerned about the safety of law enforcement officers and the community, and the potential for your Waze product to be misused by those with criminal intent to endanger police officers and the community," Beck wrote.
Beck also linked Waze to the recent killing of two NYPD officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. The shooter shared a screen grab on social media of the police tracker hours before the killings. But officials haven't directly linked Waze to the crime, and the shooter is believed to have ditched his phone before killing the officers.
Police Spotting Not Really New
Dave Maass, an investigative researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says Waze's police tracker is actually in line with a long tradition. "The idea of sharing information about where speed traps are, and police officers are on the road, is ingrained in road culture," says Maass. "It's been going on for decades. Waze is just basically the new CB radio."
But John Thompson, the deputy executive director of the National Sheriffs' Association, says even if the idea is the same, the environment for law enforcement officials has changed. "In the '70s and '60s, when we used CB radios, times were different," he says. "People weren't assassinating police officers."
Thompson says he wants the police tracking feature gone from the app immediately. He tells NPR that he has requested a meeting between his group and Waze. "The first thing is to talk, " he says, "and see if we can find a middle ground to fix this."
In a statement, Waze wouldn't say what might happen to its police tracking feature, but the company did say the app, and all of its features, do a lot of good. "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, sharing information on road incidents and closures to help municipalities better understand what's happening in their cities in real time," the company said. "These relationships keep citizens safe, promote faster emergency response and help alleviate traffic congestion." Waze even said some officers like the police tracker feature, "because most users tend to drive more carefully when they believe law enforcement is nearby."
Who Gets To Watch Whom?
Maass says it's unlikely Waze will make significant changes to the app, but if it did, that would set a bad precedent. "What happens when Twitter introduces a feature like that?" Maass says. "Are they going to go around and say that Twitter has to remove comments when people post, 'Hey, I saw a police officer at 14th and Broadway'?"
And, he says, the pushback against the app is hypocritical. "Police for years have been arguing that what you do in the public space isn't private," Maass says. "They've said they can have facial recognition, they can have automatic license plate readers, and that people have no expectation of privacy. But when the tables are turned, then that's dangerous?"
Whatever happens with Waze's police tracker, John Thompson says the National Sheriffs' Association will start hosting Waze trainings and webinars. He wants police to know how to watch the app that's letting citizens watch them.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's report next on a battle between law enforcement officials and a navigation app called Waze. It gives you advice about traffic problems ahead other drivers report in. Some police are at odds with this app and the company's owner, which is Google, but not because of the traffic advice. NPR's Sam Sanders tells us why.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Waze is kind of like Google Maps but with more.
(SOUNDBITE OF APP, "WAZE")
COMPUTER GENERATED VOICE: In a quarter of a mile, turn left on Venice Boulevard.
SANDERS: Besides getting directions, you can report things to ways in real time like traffic or construction, but that's not all you can report.
(SOUNDBITE OF APP, "WAZE")
COMPUTER GENERATED VOICE: Police reported ahead.
SANDERS: That feature - the police-tracker - is what upsets Sergio Kopelev. He's one of those behind the push to get Waze to ditch the feature. Kopelev is a reserve sheriff in Orange County, Calif.
SERGIO KOPELEV: I saw my wife using the app when she picked me up from the airport, and I saw her tag a location of a police officer.
SANDERS: He didn't like that.
KOPELEV: And then as the officer was moving, I saw her update the location. And so she told me about Waze and I said look, this isn't good.
SANDERS: Kopelev ended up giving a presentation about Waze at the National Sheriffs' Association Winter Conference. Law enforcement officers across the country have come out against the police-tracker. The chief of the Los Angeles Police Department even sent an open letter to Waze, saying it endangers police officers' lives. Dave Maass is with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and he says Waze and its police-tracker really aren't anything new.
DAVE MAASS: The idea of sharing information on where speed traps are and police officers are on the road is ingrained in road culture. Waze is just basically the new CB radio.
JOHN THOMPSON: In the '70s and '60s, when we used CB radios, times were different. People weren't assassinating police officers.
SANDERS: That's John Thompson, the deputy executive director of the National Sheriffs' Association. He and a lot of other officials point to the recent killings of two NYPD officers in an ambush-style attack. The shooter shared a screen grab of the police-tracker hours before the killings. But officials haven't directly linked Waze to the crime. In a statement, Waze wouldn't say what might happen to their police-tracking feature, but they did say it lots of police support it because people drive more carefully when they think police are around. John Thompson says he wants the tracker gone immediately, but he knows that might not happen.
THOMPSON: We'd like to talk with them. Ask them to listen to us, what our concern is and see if we can find a middle ground to fix this.
SANDERS: In the meantime, Thompson says, the National Sheriffs' Association will start hosting Waze trainings so police can better watch the app that's watching them. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.