[LEGAL?] Digital Snitching On Police
Google has re-ignited a years-old feud with police departments by extending a feature of its Waze navigation app to Google Maps. The New York City Police Department has sent Google a cease-and-desist letter claiming that users “may be engaging in criminal conduct” by interfering with enforcement of traffic laws. Google replies that it merely helps motorists drive more responsibly with fewer delays. Read what’s at issue and form your own opinion…
Is Crowdsourced Driving Advice a Bad Thing?
Before the dawn of the Internet, drivers would flash their headlights at oncoming traffic to warn others, signaling that a speed trap, accident, or some other hazard was just ahead. That's old-school now -- we have smartphones and clever apps to do that and more, with even greater precision. But is that a good thing? Let's look at the pros and cons of tech that helps drivers tip off other drivers.
Founded in 2006, Waze is a GPS navigation app that incorporates real-time input from users in its recommended routes. Travel time estimates are based on users’ actual travel times. Users can mark on Waze maps the locations of accidents, construction bottlenecks, and other pitfalls, to help others avoid traffic jams, and find alternate routes. It's those "other pitfalls" that has NYC cops upset with Google.
The Waze app has always had a feature that lets users flag red-light cameras, speed traps and DUI checkpoints. Google bought Waze in 2013, and began to integrate it with Maps in November, 2018. Icons marking police and camera presences appeared on Maps in January, 2019, and the NYPD swiftly condemned this feature. I'm not sure why it took them 13 years to figure out that 50 million people were already using Waze to do the same thing, but here we are.
“Individuals who post the locations of DWI checkpoints may be engaging in criminal conduct since such actions could be intentional attempts to prevent and/or impair the administration of the DWI laws and other relevant criminal and traffic laws,” the NYPD wrote in its letter. “The posting of such information for public consumption is irresponsible since it only serves to aid impaired and intoxicated drivers to evade checkpoints and encourage reckless driving. Revealing the location of checkpoints puts those drivers, their passengers, and the general public at risk.”
Google responded to a New York Times inquiry about the letter that safety was a “top priority” and “that informing drivers about upcoming speed traps allows them to be more careful and make safer decisions when they’re on the road.” Police counter that foreknowledge of enforcement locations only enables drivers to break the law somewhere else.
But Helen Witty, the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, noted that camera and checkpoint locations are often publicized days or weeks in advance; indeed, several States require police to give such “fair warning.” Witty added, “We want these things publicized… The goal is to make everyone aware that if you drink, don’t drive, and if you drive, don’t drink.”
Public Versus Police - Competing Goals?
That brings up a good question: Is the goal of police to catch people breaking laws, or to discourage law-breaking in the first place? After all, checkpoints catch very few drunk drivers, but lots of tickets are issued for expired plates, broken tail lights, and other minor revenue-generators. Red light cameras are notoriously rigged to maximize revenue.
Many towns use the police department as revenue generators, constantly dragging the local citizens and commuters before the magistrate to pay hundreds in fines for the terrible crimes of rolling through a stop sign at 2 miles per hour, doing 35 in a 30 mph zone, or being a few days late on that annual inspection. I got pulled over once in a nearby town that was notorious for this. I was being careful to obey the speed limit, so I asked the officer why. He said "I thought I heard a noise," and carefully inspected my car for low tire tread and any other signs of non-compliance. He found nothing, and sent me on my way. It was clearly a fishing expedition.
This is not just a personal gripe. A paper published by NYU Law found there is a growing body of evidence to indicate that "local police departments are increasingly being used to provide revenue for municipalities by imposing and collecting fees and fines", and that when pressure is put on police to generate revenue, they solve violent crimes at significantly lower rates.
And not everyone who snitches on traffic cops uses high tech. In 2013, a Texas man was arrested for standing in the median of a six-lane road with a sign that read, “POLICE AHEAD.” The charge of “advertising” on public property was dropped four months later. In 2015, a Seattle man got a $138 ticket for using the word “stop” in his speed trap warning sign.
It's not clear how this challenge to the usage of technology that allows drivers to warn other drivers will play out. What do you think? Should this real-time crowdsourced data, which has long been available via Waze, be included on Google Maps? Do citizens have the right to warn each other of police presences in public places? Even if they can do it legally, is it the right thing to do? Your comments are welcome below.
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 11 Feb 2019
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