Paranoia is not an especially healthy characteristic to possess, or God forbid, nurture. I try to avoid it as much as possible and anchor to reality, while still remaining as alert and hypervigilant to the state of the world as possible. Healthy skepticism is a beneficial lens with which to view the world, but paranoia is one step too far. That said, I must admit to a certain degree of it in a number of areas, perhaps most notably so when it comes to software that I do not have the ability to audit that knows more about me than I am comfortable. Case in point, navigation and community driving aggregation software like Waze.

I’m of two minds when it comes to apps like Waze. On the one hand, I’m hesitant to recommend it, or even personally use it very much, because I’m paranoid this data is being scooped up and given to insurance and advertisement companies. Insurance companies want to know if customers like to speed, or change lanes frequently, or make illegal u-turns. Those that do are more likely to get in accidents, and therefore deserve higher premiums (in their warped minds, anyway). Likewise, advertisement companies would love to know all the stores I visit and the places that hold my interest so they can better target ads to me. Do they need to use Waze to do it? Of course not, smartphones tattletale all the time (to varying degrees of success depending on apps and OSes). Still, if we’ve learned anything in recent years (generally speaking), it’s that app developers don’t seem to care about protecting users’ privacy, and advertisers are willing to pay high prices for such data. Google, Waze’s parent company, certainly has demonstrated a disregard for user privacy in recent years.

That said, I do see the value in community-powered driving apps like Waze. It is often helpful to know when there are accidents ahead, or roadwork that would slow you down, or even a police officer trying to catch someone speeding. Being aware of such things, and having the option to avoid them or at least prepare for them in advance, is a tremendous benefit.

This evening I was watching the nightly news with my dad when we heard the story that the New York Police Department sent a ceast and decist letter to Google asing them to stop allowing Waze users to report covert police activity such as DUI checkpoints and traffic camera locations. It was interesting to me how different peoples’ reactions to that could be. Dad said something to the effect of “that’s good, Waze shouldn’t do that - catching drunk drivers is important and giving that information away could mean people die.”

My view was the total opposite to his: for one, it seems clear to me that no matter what, you can’t stop people from sharing this information. If a proprietary, centralized navigation vender is forced to stop doing this, the technological capability still exists. Another service will step in to take its place. Maybe it will be another individual company, or maybe it will be some decentralized, darkweb-esque alternative. As I often quote from the movie Serenity, “you can’t stop the signal.” If people want to share this information with other people, that information is going to be shared, end of story. Legality simply doesn’t factor into it. If it did, however, this seems to me a very obvious example of protected free speech. If you tell me I can’t tell other people where a checkpoint is, that’s a clear case of intruding on my first amendment rights. There are arguments to be made related to charges of Obstruction of Justice, but they don’t apply in this instance. This has already been tested in the courts, as it bears a very strong resemblance to a similar case that involved whether or not people have a right to flash their headlights to oncoming cars to alert them to police presence. In that situation, the court ruled that alerting other drivers was a form of free speech, and is therefore constitutionally protected.

So regardless of whether or not I think people should use apps like Waze in the first place without being able to know for sure what data they are recording and who they are sharing it with (and I’m still on the fence about it myself), it seems obvious that allowing users to share information that is counter-productive to law enforcement efforts is something that still has to be permitted. You can’t stop it, and even if you could, the users have the right to do it. Yes, it may make such law enforcement efforts more ineffective. Yes, it may be a contributing factor to a DUI-related event that very well could cause real people harm. That ultimately doesn’t matter. In order to have freedom, you sometimes have to give up some securities or assurances. You have to take risks. You have to weigh the potential costs versus the guaranteed benefits.

At the end of the day, only one thing is certain: you can’t stop the signal.