TMI? Does Google traffic app cross an ethical line?

TMI? Does Google traffic app cross an ethical line? 


This post first appeared on the author's own Engineering Ethics Blog.

Google's traffic app called Waze allows users to tell each other about traffic-related issues such as construction zones, tie-ups, and speed traps.  It uses a phone's GPS system to locate an icon on a map of the area that everyone using Waze can see.  Google bought Waze from its Israeli developers for a billion dollars in 2013, and it is now one of the most popular free apps on Apple's rankings.  But the National Sheriffs' Association (NSA) is not happy about it.

In a widely publicized statement, the NSA's Deputy Executive Director John Thompson said "we are . . . concerned this app will have a negative effect on saving lives and with public safety activities."  The app's little police icons can show locations of speed traps and other law-enforcement operations.  The sheriffs cite recent ambush attacks on law enforcement, such as the killing of New York City patrolmen Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu last December, as examples of hostile actions that could be aided by Waze.

An Associated Press report of the reactions to the NSA statement includes a response by a Google spokesperson, who pointed out that most users tend to drive more carefully when they believe law enforcement is nearby.  Free-speech advocates oppose any restrictions on locating law-enforcement operations via Waze as long as the operations are clearly visible on public property.  

Traffic-law enforcers face a problem that is in some ways paradoxical.  Sometimes they want to be highly visible simply because of the deterrent effect on most law-abiding citizens.  After all, the overarching goal of law enforcement is to encourage obedience to the law.  This goal would be achieved with respect to speed laws if everyone obeyed the speed limits.  And most drivers (but not all) who become aware of a potential speed trap will slow down.  So letting folks know that Smokey is hiding over that next ridge on the interstate will probably lead to fewer speeders, which is what we want, isn't it?  That doesn't take into account the other aspect of the paradox, which is that sometimes traffic cops want to hide, too.

I think it may be significant that the National Sheriffs' Association --but no other major law enforcement organization-- has come out in opposition to Waze. In small towns in rural areas, and in larger Western counties where the main law enforcement is by sheriffs and not town or city police, a considerable fraction of the sheriff's office revenue may come from speeding tickets. If a deputy has found a nice concealed location where drivers who are just passing through frequently get ticketed for speeding, the last thing he or she wants is for this 'prized fishing hole' to show up on Waze. Local circumstances such as these can create perverse incentives which encourage law enforcers to rely on a certain number of speeders to show up, just to keep them in business.  

Ethical speed traps

The problem of publicizing law-enforcement operations and locations should not simply be brushed off. You can imagine a months-long sting operation by police that would climax in a stealthy approach to a crime organization's secret hideout. But if some clueless driver comes along and posts a lot of cop icons on Waze, and one of the crooks happens to be looking at his phone at the time, the whole operation could come unglued, with dire consequences up to and including bloodshed.

Back in the slow-media days when newspapers were the main forum of public information about law enforcement, reporters would sometimes get wind of secret police operations in advance.  It was a part of the journalistic code of ethics not to spill such beans when it would cause major problems to the police, even though it would make a scoop that would sell papers. Editors have sat on such hot news many times until after the police have had time to spring their traps. While such measures could have been viewed as press self-censorship, most observers would agree that it was done in the public's best interest in most cases.  The public's right to know is not absolute, and must be tempered by other considerations such as the safety of law-enforcement officials when publicity would put their lives at risk.

But this is 2015, not 1935, and the age of citizen-journalists. Instead of fedora-wearing photographers armed with big Graflex cameras, we have baseball-capped passersby armed with iPhones linked to Facebook and Waze. We can no longer count on the reasoned restraint of professional journalists who can view the larger picture and weigh the consequences of their actions in the long run.  If a Waze user sees a cop and posts the sighting on Waze, the user has no idea whether the cop is there for a routine speed trap or for more specialized and delicate reasons.  

DRIVE-BY honor system

So far, there have been no major incidents to my knowledge in which Waze data on law enforcement personnel locations has led to a major miscarriage of justice or harm to an officer.  But in the present atmosphere of tension between police and many citizens, I can understand why the National Sheriffs Association is touchy about the popularity of Waze, and why they have asked Google to do something about it.

Unfortunately for the NSA, chances are not good for that to happen.  

While Google could conceivably run interference between the raw data coming from observers and the displays of police icons, it would be a resource-intensive and probably manual process, which would slow down the edited displays and diminish what is one of the main attractions of Waze in the first place:  its timeliness. Public-access apps that let the public post information directly depend on that same public not to lie or to manipulate their inputs in a nefarious way. 

Fortunately for law enforcement, and everybody else, most people at most times are simply trying to get along and help others when it's not too much trouble. Waze helps them do that, and it looks like the speeding-deterrent effects of posting speed-trap locations will outweigh the possible negative consequences, at least in Google's view. And in this case, unless some more powerful force intervenes, it's Google's view that counts.

The author is a professor at Texas State University's Ingram School of Engineering in San Marcos TX. He holds three separate degrees in engineering from the California Institute of Technology, Cornell University, and the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at:

Sources:  The AP article by Eileen Sullivan describing reactions to the National Sheriffs' Association press release was carried by numerous outlets such as the Chicago Tribune at  The statement itself can be found at  I also referred to Wikipedia's article on Waze.

Google+ Google+