LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com/AP) — LAPD Chief Charlie Beck is warning that a popular smartphone traffic app could put the lives of Los Angeles police officers at risk.

In a letter dated Dec. 30, Beck wrote that the Waze app, which indicates the real-time locations of police officers, could compromise their safety and security, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Waze utilizes a combination of GPS navigation and social networking to inform about 50 million users in around 200 countries about nearby congestion, car accidents, speed traps, traffic cameras, construction zones, potholes, stalled vehicles or unsafe weather conditions.

Google purchased Waze for $966 million in 2013, the Associated Press reported.

The app allows users to mark police on maps without much distinction other than a police icon and either a “visible” or “hidden” status. Oftentimes, the icon will indicate whether police are in the area for a speed trap, a sobriety check or a lunch break.

waze app

In his letter to Google CEO Larry Page, Beck noted that in the days before slaying New York Police Department Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu on Dec. 20, Ismaiiyl Brinsley used the application to monitor police movements.

“He did use the app. Now, whether or not he used it to locate those officers, I have no idea,” Beck said during a news conference Tuesday. “My point is that it could be used for that, and I don’t see that that risk is outweighed by a benefit.”

Beck asked if there was any way he and Page could discuss the app.

“I am confident your company did not intend the Waze app to be a means to allow those who wish to commit crimes to use the unwitting Waze community as their lookouts for the location of police officers,” Beck wrote.

The Los Angeles Police Department said Monday it had not heard back from Google about whether it had addressed Beck’s concerns.

“There’s no legal recourse that I know of. I’m pointing out something that I think is a legitimate concern and I hope Google acts on it,” Beck said.

A Waze spokesperson released a statement in response to Beck’s letter that read in part: “We think very deeply about safety and security and work in partnership with the NYPD and other 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.

“These relationships keep citizens safe, promote faster emergency response and help alleviate traffic congestion. 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.”

Some officers, like Sheriff Mike Brown of Bedford County, Virginia, think it’s only a matter of time before Waze is used to hunt and harm police.

“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,” said Brown, who raised the issue Jan. 23 at a National Sheriffs’ Association meeting in Washington, D.C.

But Beck is not the only one concerned about potential threats posed by Waze.

Some privacy advocates worry about how much information about customers Waze shares with law enforcement, since the service necessarily monitors their location continually as long as it’s turned on.

Nuala O’Connor, head of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington civil-liberties group, told KNX 1070 NEWSRADIO that
the app could be used as a sort of counter-measure to the increasing use of police body cameras and other emerging technology.

“The big story this week is not Waze, funny enough, but actually, the ubiquitous surveillance of our cars and our homes,” O’Connor said. “We’re moving toward an encroaching kind of police and always-on surveillance state, and that should be very concerning to everybody.”

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