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Braking news: Cops slammed for spamming Waze to slow drivers down

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Traffic cops in Surrey, England, have drawn criticism after revealing how they game Waze to spook drivers into slowing down while out on patrol.

Waze is a satnav-like phone app that lets users, among other things, report the presence of police on the roads. When that happens, an icon appears at that location for everyone nearby to see, alerting them to the cops being there.

So what the officers do is this: while driving around on patrol, they open Waze, and every so often report their presence as they go, placing markers on the map. Nearby drivers see these icons and slow down in hope of avoiding getting a fine. They may assume speed traps have been set up all over the place, whereas in reality it's just a cop car cruising neighborhoods spamming the service.

This came to light this week when the official Twitter feed of Surrey county's road police thanked Waze for giving the plod an easy way to get drivers to slow down, while jokingly denying they were doing what we described above.

"We definitely don't drop police markers on Waze at random points on our patrol, nope – never," the force tweeted, followed by a winking emoji, adding it reckons these markers keep motorists within speed limits for around 20 minutes per location. 

Responses on Twitter were varied, from those saying they've actually clocked cops where they were Waze markers, to those accusing the police force of devaluing the tool, violating Waze's terms of use, and supplying false information – a point the police deny. 

"Technically not false though. We are there at that very specific point in time," it replied.

As the force stated on Twitter, Waze's terms of service make no specific mention of the need for reported police to be stationary nor do the terms make it readily apparent that the Surrey coppers are in violation of Waze's policies. 

What Waze's terms do make clear is that it is able to review reports, decide not to share or to remove items, and that user submissions are "intrinsically fluctuant and may be inaccurate, incomplete or outdated. Waze does not provide any warranties to such information's credibility or reliability."

When asked by The Register if Waze had a response to Surrey's use of the app, Ru Roberts, UK Country Manager at Waze, said that incorrect or inaccurate reports are quickly removed by others. "If users do not verify the presence of police on the road, the alert will be removed," Roberts told us. 

While not directly responding to the cops, Roberts did issue a warning to those making less-than-accurate reports: "If we identify users who report false information, they may be restricted and/or removed from the app."

Meanwhile, across the Pond

British bobbies may see Waze as a somewhat cheeky way to get motorists to obey traffic laws, but officers in the US have expressed the opposite sentiment.

In 2015, the National Sheriff's Association (NSA) said that Waze was a threat to officer safety as well as police operations – a belief it still expresses on its website under the heading Bad Waze. The group argues that Waze gives drunk drivers a way to avoid DUI checkpoints, child abductors a way to avoid a dragnet, and other criminals "one more tool to use against us." 

The New York Police Department has also had issues with Waze, sending the biz's parent company Alphabet a cease-and-desist order [PDF] in 2019 demanding it remove a function it claimed let users report DUI checkpoints throughout the Big Apple. 

In response to the NYPD complaint, Waze said there was no function in the app for specifying types of police presence, only that officers were at a location. The police letter also accused Waze users who report DUI checkpoint locations as potentially "engaging in criminal conduct." ®

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