Skip to main content

Information Dissemination In An Open Society

Information derives a large part of its value in its timeliness. Democracy dies in darkness, because transparency of government is essential for it. When these two principles collide, things get messy, as they have with Waze and the NYPD. Google, owner of Waze, was recently notified by the NYPD with a demand that they remove a feature from Waze that alerts drivers of DUI and speeding checkpoints. Here our democratic principles are colliding, whereby timely information is being communicated about the government operations which is effectively being used to undermine it.

Police departments generate a lot of revenue from DUI and speeding convictions. This revenue sustains law enforcement in other crime fighting activities which generate little, if any, cash flow for police. Yet the NYPD is not framing the issue in this way. DUI checkpoint and speed trap data is posted to Waze by a method called crowdsourcing. If someone sees a DUI checkpoint or speed trap, they use Waze on their smartphone to flag that location as such, which is a rather low-tech yet very effective method. Its effectiveness is derived from its simplicity, because it is very hard for law enforcement to stop, short of demanding that the ability to post this data to the app be removed. The NYPD is thus framing their concern around subverting law enforcement rather than depriving it of revenue.

A democracy has certain key ingredients, an informed public, the right to vote, and of course, transparency on what government is doing. Law enforcement knows this, which is why they give us broad warnings to avoid certain activities. We are told not to pirate intellectual property, not to do drugs, not to speed, and to avoid drinking and driving. All of these activities may be fun or convenient, but they're illegal. Is this the extent of transparency we should expect from law enforcement?

Smartphones have lifted the veil on law enforcement in other ways, and law enforcement has responded in kind. Most radio transmissions of police activity were recently freely observed by anyone with the relatively modest equipment and knowledge required. Smartphones made these transmissions even more widely available, and because criminals found it easy to track what the police are up to, nearly all sensitive law enforcement radio transmissions are now encrypted. This was not done to operate in secrecy, but rather to avoid tipping off criminals hoping to evade capture. This is unfortunate for the informed public, but hard to argue with from the standpoint of law enforcement.

Speeding and DUIs are bread and butter operations for police. While they can have significant ramifications for those arrested, especially a DUI conviction, it is safe to say that most of these convictions are of honest people who made a mistake rather than hardened career criminals or even hard core alcoholics. Helping otherwise law abiding citizens avoid such a mistake is fair, and one that law enforcement already performs. The rub is on the specificity. Law enforcement's warnings to not drink and drive, for example, won't tell you when or where enforcement of that law will occur. Waze simply fills in the gap, and allows technology to empower citizens with this information.

Google is obviously a believer in the power of technology to empower people, which is why they are unlikely to remove the feature from Waze. Is this a freedom of speech issue, since citizens are constitutionally allowed to speak about the government openly? The NYPD does not think so, as it also warned citizens that posting data to Waze could be engaging in criminal conduct. Are we unleashing technology into the world before we fully understand its ramifications? Perhaps technology can empower citizens in less controversial ways. In communities where ride sharing services have proliferated there is a correlating significant decline in DUI arrests. Those communities are safer without negatively impacting law enforcement.

Ultimately, if the goal is to make communities safer, police should support giving citizens every possible means to make better decisions rather than breaking the law. If the goal is revenue, law enforcement shouldn't be surprised when citizens find ways to subvert that goal, because that revenue is attached to severe consequences for the people from which it is extracted. Yet if a citizen simply seeks to break the law without consequence, they should expect stricter enforcement of laws, or the ever-dreaded higher taxes to make up for the loss of revenue to law enforcement.

--Jay E. blogging for


Popular posts from this blog

Law enforcement and DNA sequencing

DNA sequencing has risen in popularity in recent years to to the widespread availability of affordable testing kits. Obviously people are opting into participation by uploading their DNA data, in great numbers, but do they fully know how that data will be used?

The Golden State Killer, who terrorized California from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, was recently apprehended by working with a lesser known testing company, Family Tree DNA. Their kits are smaller and so is their database, but their database has an big advantage. The company boasts that it has the largest database Y-DNA database in the world. Y-DNA is very useful in tracing patrilineal ancestry, which is essentially data on who you are related to. This data is how the Golden State Killer was caught. Because some of his relatives had willingly participated in DNA kit testing, law enforcement was able to triangulate his identity.

Use of these databases by law enforcement is a new but already rapidly growing phenomenon. Gene …

Operator Overload

Photo by Oliver Sjostrom
Life has changed dramatically since the start of the personal computer revolution in the late 1970s. We have seen computing go from the realm of military to industry, then to the home and now to the pocket of our pants. Connected computers have followed the same path, as the Internet has forever changed the landscape of computing, including how people interact with it. Along the way, we've seen computing go from being rather anti-social to being a completely mainstream component of popular culture.

Let's pause for a moment and examine how technology migrated into being chic. In the late 1970s there was a lot of optimism around what computing technology could someday do for us and while many people were eager to learn, that number was still small. Computers were essentially souped up calculators and most people weren't eager to learn an arcane programming language or spend their free time noodling around with calculations.

One pivotal use case for t…

The Growing Disruption Of Artificial Intelligence

Photo by Frank Wang
Artificial intelligence may be as disruptive as the computers used to create it once were, and it could be even bigger. Given the disruption that social media has proven to be, one has to wonder if we are fully prepared for the life altering consequences we are building for ourselves.

IBM has been a key player in the artificial intelligence arena for over two decades. Deep Blue was their first tour de force in 1997, when its team of developers received $100,000 for defeating chess champion Gary Kasparov in a game of chess. That watershed moment has its roots all the way back in 1981 when researchers at Bell Labs developed a machine that achieved Master status in chess, for which they were awarded $5000. In 1988, researchers at Carnegie Melon University were awarded $10,000 for creating a machine that achieved international master status at chess. Deep Blue, however, was the first machine to beat the world chess champion.

Google has entered the fray as well, with th…