Police want Waze to stop displaying DWI checkpoint locations

By Emily Wiest

Elm Staff Writer

Anyone who has used the navigation app Waze is aware of the whimsical mustachioed icons that designate the location of police officers along the displayed route. After years of US law enforcement expressing their concern over this feature, the New York Police Department has officially asked Google, the parent company of Waze, to stop featuring police activity — especially where DWI checkpoints are concerned.

Waze is a navigation app that utilizes crowdsourcing to find the fastest routes and alert drivers of road conditions. The app collects data from all users while the app is open, and uses manual reports from drivers to provide details. One of the features included is a police-presence alert, depicted by an icon of a policeman. This feature, and its connection with DWI checkpoints, is a controversial issue garnering the recent attention and action of the NYPD.

The NYPD uses sobriety checkpoints in locations with high statistical frequency of collisions and DWI arrests. The ability of Waze users to report police presence and detail the locations of checkpoints has apparently been undermining this practice.

In a cease-and-desist letter sent to Google earlier this month, acting Deputy Commissioner Ann Prunty stated that, “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.”

Prunty also pointed to the possibility of legal wrongdoing, stating that “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.”

Waze does not have a specific feature for marking where these checkpoints are, as its representative was quick to point out. The information is added by users manually.

Regardless of whether or not it is a feature, many people have been questioning the validity of the cease-and-desist.

Others over the years have been concerned with possible dangers that Waze can promote, but the government’s authority to interfere with the service is unclear at best and a violation of the First Amendment at worst. There is no apparent legal basis for the NYPD to demand that Google stop using crowd-sourced data to identify their location.

As many have pointed out, to do so would be in violation of free speech. Besides, the NYPD is targeting a platform, but wouldn’t it be the individuals reporting the checkpoints who are responsible, not the application they use to act through? That’s assuming there is actually anything illegal about sharing that information in the first place. It’s understandable that the police would see this as inconvenient, but legality is an entirely different matter.

Despite the probable emptiness of the NYPD’s threats, the implications of the agency’s actions are somewhat jarring. If the police gain the ability to legally prevent groups and individuals from participating in crowdsourcing for certain kinds of information, what consequences might that precedent have in the future? What other behaviors can then be limited based on the government’s preferences?

Perhaps more important to the situation is this question: Is it the responsibility of the people to adjust their behavior to better suit law enforcement, or is it law enforcement’s responsibility to adapt their methods to the public’s behavior?

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