Could popular traffic app Waze be used to target police?

Some law enforcement officials are worried that Google's popular traffic tracking app Waze endangers police by showing where their squad cars are located.

But the concern may not be widely shared. Representatives of several Bay Area law enforcement agencies said Monday that they want the public to know where their officers are.

"We want to be seen," said Sgt. Heather Randol, spokeswoman for the San Jose Police Department. Part of the department's service is "being highly visible on patrol to reduce crime," she said.

Waze is a social roadway navigation app that was acquired by Google in 2013 for about $1 billion. It provides turn-by-turn voice directions and also has social media features, allowing users to input traffic accidents, construction, hazards and police locations.

The first to express a concern over police locations was a Southern California reserve sheriff's deputy. He brought his worry that it could be used by potential assailants to stalk police to the attention of Sheriff Mike Brown of Bedford County, Virginia, who heads the National Sheriff's Association technology committee.

Brown had the deputy speak to the committee.

Concerns about police safety have been heightened since two New York police officers were shot to death as they sat in their squad car last month.

Brown -- who could not be reached for comment -- calls the app "a police stalker," according to The Associated Press. "The police community needs to coordinate an effort to have the owner, Google, act like the responsible corporate citizen they have always been and remove this feature from the application even before any litigation or statutory action," Brown told the news service.


The association hasn't taken a position on the issue, said spokesman Fred Wilson. "Our guys like to think things like this through for a little while," Wilson said.

Waze responded to a flurry of news stories with a statement from spokeswoman Julie Mossler defending the app's relationship with police departments.

The company works with 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 statement said.

"These relationships keep citizens safe, promote faster emergency response and help alleviate traffic congestion," the statement added. "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."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a public interest internet advocacy group in San Francisco, said it's a simple free-speech issue.

"I don't think it's in Google's interest to remove this service," said Dave Maas, an EFF investigative researcher. "They have a free-speech right to have this tool and drivers have a First Amendment right to use this tool."

Bay Area law enforcement agency response was tepid.

"This isn't something we're greatly concerned about at this point," said Deputy Rebecca Rosenblatt, public information officer for the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office . "It comes from a well-intentioned place, but it's not a concern of ours."

San Francisco Police Department spokesman Albie Esparza said that while officers patrolling remote rural locations might be concerned because their backup is miles away, "in the city you can't hide anywhere" and backup is minutes away.

The app's police feature could be helpful, he said. "Someone is less likely to speed if they know a police officer is around the corner. It also helps with public safety so people know where there is an officer to get help," he said.

Richard Lucia, undersheriff with the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, said the department isn't taking a position on the issue.

"We would be very happy if people did not use this app to to harm our people in any way shape or form," he said.


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