Cops accused of fiddling with their locations on Waze to fool drivers

Technically Incorrect: Hundreds of Miami police officers allegedly log on to the app and register false locations, thereby being able to still surprise drivers. There's only one problem: there's no evidence.

Chris Matyszczyk
5 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

A Waze video appears to actively encourage reporting on the police's locations. Waze/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

It seemed such a delicious accusation.

With the essentially excitable, burlesque nature of Miami life, the local police have often been thought unlikely to change their occasionally cavalier ways.

Suddenly they stood accused of changing their Waze.

Should you not be familiar with this app, Waze exists to give you better traffic information than any local news station helicopter, so that you can navigate as quickly as possible to your destination.

It uses crowdsourced information from other drivers. Given our community-minded innards, it's no surprise that one of the ways in which it's being used is to inform Waze World of the presence of police officers in various locations.

NBC Miami reported two weeks ago that some local police chiefs worried that this was helping criminals. So hundreds of Miami police officers, the news station said, allegedly downloaded Waze and began to fill it with what is politely known these days as misinformation.

They hoped, so the accusations went, that drivers using Waze would still be surprised to encounter, say, a DUI check.

Was it possible that, if hundreds of police officers were involved, the Miami Police Department had offered an edict to part Waze from fact?

After all, the Associated Press reported a few weeks ago that the the National Sheriff's Association became very critical of Waze after two police officers were fatally shot in New York City. There is no evidence that the app was used in that incident, though the alleged killer, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, did have the app on his phone.

The sheriff's association also complained that Waze was interfering with officers' ability to write speeding tickets. (Or as it's known in some parts, revenue collection.)

I contacted Major Delrish L. Moss of the Miami Police Department. The accusations didn't amuse him. He told me: "There is no such practice in the City of Miami Police Department. No officers have been instructed to do anything of the sort. If some people acted individually, the department has not been made aware and we do not condone the action. I believe that reports of this wherever they exist are false."

You might be of a mind to wonder: "He would say that, wouldn't he?"

So my next stop was to contact Waze. Surely it would have noticed unusual activity. After all, the app's owned by Google, the company that likely knows every twisted predilection of every officer in the Miami Police Department.

Waze spokeswoman Julie Mossler told me: "The amount of police alerts currently reported in Miami is at its normal rate."

Trying to subvert Waze would, though, be pointless. The app has a credibility rating system. You can thumbs up or down an informant.

As Mossler told me: "Waze algorithms rely on crowdsourcing to confirm or negate what has been reported on the road. Thousands of users in Florida do this, both passively and actively, every day. In addition, we place greater trust in reports from heavy users and terminate accounts of those whose behavior demonstrate a pattern of contributing false information. As a result the Waze map will remain reliable and updated to the minute, reflecting real-time conditions."

Waze actually works with police and fire departments on various programs. Those of a dry mind might suggest it doesn't therefore want to declare that the police have messed with the app. The phrasing "currently reported" might be carefully constructed.

The company does, though, clearly encourage people to share information about police locations.

The Waze instructional video on YouTube is a cute little animation. However, at the 27-second mark, there is what, to my eyes, is a cartoon police car passing as the voice says: "You can also actively report events you see while driving, all hands-free, of course." What could Waze possibly mean?

Moreover, on the app itself, there is a specific icon for a police location. Yes, of course, it's a man with mustache and a blue hat.

Clearly, using this app is the technological equivalent of people flashing their headlights to each other to warn of speed traps or DUI checks. Moreover, all the DUI checkpoints have to be advertised by law. When the Miami Police Department publicizes these locations, it encourages the media to use its channels to announce them.

One might have imagined, too, that when drivers know where police officers are, they actually drive more safely. This surely happens on every road in America. You see a police car, you think: "Oh, there they are. Again." Can it be that some police officers in Miami don't believe this?

It may well be that some of those in Miami uniform tried to subvert the app. Google has enough reasons to keep any information that they did out of the public eye. In neighboring Broward County, however, law enforcement insists it wouldn't do such a thing.

The Broward County Sheriff's office told me that its officers were definitely not involved in this practice. Moreover, the office's spokeswoman, Veda Coleman-Wright, told me: "The Broward Sheriff's Office has not petitioned Google to turn off the feature." Some sheriffs have. Moreover, as the New York Daily News reported Tuesday, a police union specifically wrote to Google CEO Larry Page this week, demanding that the app be turned off.

The Broward County Sheriff has previously told NBC Miami that if criminals were going to commit crimes, they didn't need the help of Waze. I contacted the National Sheriffs Association to ask whether it, given its criticisms of Waze, approved of the idea of subverting its accuracy. I will update, should I hear.

Perhaps it's true that Miami police officers -- and those elsewhere -- sit in cars and even bars, fiddling with their Waze.

What's currently missing are reports of real people who have driven into a situation where they thought there wouldn't be a police officer, and lo, they were beheld.

Technology always thinks it's doing good. Somehow, though, the intentions of people -- which aren't too often in harmony -- show that it can be used with all sorts of consequences.