How Google is endangering police officers

Sheriffs: Driving app endangers police
Sheriffs: Driving app endangers police

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Story highlights

  • David A. Clarke Jr. and Jonathan Thompson: Why does Google have an app that ambushes police?
  • With Waze, we are confronted with a tool that can be lethal to police officers and deputies

David A. Clarke Jr. is sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. Jonathan Thompson is CEO of the National Sheriffs' Association. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN)For the fifth year in a row in 2014, ambush attacks on police officers were the No. 1 cause of felonious deaths of law enforcement officers in the line of duty. Nevertheless, Google continues to market a smartphone application that lets lawbreakers pinpoint the location of police officers in the field. Google's executives won't even discuss the subject with organizations representing law enforcement.

Google's popular real-time traffic app, Waze, uses GPS navigation and crowdsourcing to alert users to traffic jams, automobile accidents, stalled cars, and through its "traffic cop" feature, the presence of law enforcement.
David A. Clarke Jr.
Jonathan Thompson
Most people undoubtedly use Waze's police-finding feature to avoid traffic tickets, but the app poses an enormous risk to deputies and police officers.
    Could popular driving app be used to target police?
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    In the days before he assassinated New York police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu at point blank range while they sat in their patrol car last December, Ismaaiyl Brinsley is known to have used the Waze application to monitor the movements of police officers. The killer identified the location of police on his own Waze account and even posted screen captures to Instagram.
    While Google (which acquired Waze in 2013 for a reported $1.1 billion) claims the app "is all about contributing to the 'common good' out there on the road," the risks far outweigh the potential benefits.
    Every day, thousands of police officers and deputies enforce traffic laws, execute arrest and search warrants, investigate domestic violence complaints and perform countless tasks that are needed to keep our neighborhoods safe and remove criminals from the streets.
    It takes just a couple of clicks on Waze's "traffic cop" icon to identify their locations and indicate whether -- in the opinion of the anonymous user -- the officer is "visible" or "invisible." At that moment, the officer or deputy becomes an identifiable target whose whereabouts are available to any one of Waze's 50 million users worldwide.
    Social media has made enormous contributions to law enforcement as a "force multiplier" that lets citizens help police protect our communities. As we have seen with the emergence of crimes like identity theft, however, technology has the potential for evil as well as good.
    In the case of Waze, we are confronted with a tool that can be lethal to police officers and deputies, whose roles in society are to protect our citizens and enforce the laws that keep our communities safe.
    Google, whose stated mission is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," is now marketing an app with the potential to obstruct law enforcement and put the lives of police officers and deputies at risk.
    Even the more benign uses of Waze's "traffic cop" feature are concerning.
    In 2013, 10,076 people were killed in alcohol-related automobile accidents. And in 2011, 9,944 people lost their lives in speed-related fatal crashes. Is the highest, best use of Google's geo-mapping and crowdsourcing capabilities to help drunk drivers avoid checkpoints and give speeders assistance in evading speed limits?
    It's not just the speeders and drunk drivers who have access to the locations of police officers through Google's technology. Perpetrators of domestic violence can use it to find out about the presence of law enforcement in a spouse's neighborhood; gang members, narcotics dealers, even those intent on perpetrating an act of terror, all have access to Waze's "traffic cop" feature.
    Google has built a solid reputation as a good corporate neighbor, tying for first place in a 2013 study by the Reputation Institute measuring companies' reputations for corporate social responsibility. The company makes much of its compliance with legal, moral and ethical obligations as a good corporate neighbor.
    But when it comes to Waze, Google has gone into a defensive crouch.
    The company's executives flat out refused to discuss the subject with representatives of the National Sheriffs' Association, an organization representing more than 3,000 sheriff's offices across the United States.
    The refusal of Google's executives to even dignify our concerns by meeting with us offends our conscience.
    If Google's real objective is the "common good out there on the road," it will work with us to ensure the safety of both motorists and police officers.
    The goals are not mutually exclusive: we can have both.