Members of law enforcement around the nation have voiced fears that Waze, which includes reports of police sightings, complete time and location, represents a threat to their safety. There may be something to that claim, given reports that a brutal assassination-style slaying of two NYPD officers in the midst of the Eric Garner protests was facilitated via information obtained in the Waze app. Then again, the officers were in full uniform and sitting in a marked car, raising questions about just how much the app contributed to this nevertheless heinous act.
Miami Stg. Javier Ortiz tells NBC 6 Miami, “It puts us at risk, puts the public at risk, because it’s going to cause more deadly force encounters between law enforcement and suspects.”
According to the news outlet, officers in the city have decided to fight back. “Hundreds of officers downloaded the app to try and steer the data in the wrong direction [by reporting false information on their activity],” the news outlet reports.
This mirrors the actions taken by many angry Angelenos who have grown tired of Waze directing shortcut-seeking driver onto quiet residential streets. These citizens have banded together in recent months in the hope of sabotaging – or at least redirecting – Waze’s crowd-sourced guidance by reporting false congestion in their neighborhoods.
As I wrote at the time, PhD students at Israel’s Technion University proved that it was possible to impact Waze with mountains of noisy data. The problem is, the students then reported the issue to the company, which then patched many of these existing vulnerabilities. Further stacking the deck against the officers, the Technion group relied on a set of algorithms that automated the task of making many thousands of fake Waze accounts and repeatedly reporting traffic congestion. A few hundred police doing so manually is unlikely to have a profound affect on the system which includes more than 50 million users globally.
A Waze spokesperson told CBS LA at the time, “Fake, coordinated traffic reports can’t come to fruition because they’ll be negated by the next 50 people that drive down the street passively using Waze.” In Miami, the company told NBC 6, “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.”
Waze users rely on the app’s alerts not only to navigate around traffic congestion, but also to avoid things like speed traps, sobriety checks, and other checkpoints.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel was similarly dismissive of the plan, saying, “If someone is suffering mental illness and they want to commit a heinous crime or hunt a deputy or a police officer; they don’t need Waze to do that.”
Google agreed to acquire Waze in 2013 for $ 1.3 billion precisely because of its crowdsourced data model which results in what many consider the best real-time routing in the market. Early reports indicated that the deal would not draw scrutiny from the FTC but report earlier today from Bloomberg calls into question that decision. With Google’s backing this debate over privacy and safety takes on an even broader context.
Waze wouldn’t be the first Google-owned property to take proactive steps to ensure officer safety. YouTube, along with non-Google platforms Facebook and Twitter, actively warns law enforcement about potential threats posed by its users.
As it stands, it seems unlikely that the Miami officers’ efforts will have much impact on Waze, either in the near-term functionality of its platform or in the company’s broader approach to reporting law enforcement locations. Any change, which is hardly guaranteed, will likely have come at a national level and as a result of regulatory intervention, not at the point of a virtual bayonet.