Privacy SOS

Cop who defended warrantless tracking of motorists doesn’t like citizens watching police

It turns out the police don't like being tracked the way they track the rest of us.

Virginia's Bedford County Sheriff Mike Brown is calling for Google to disable a feature in its Waze app that allows users to post the public locations of police cars. Brown, who calls the app the "police stalker," is the chairman of the National Sheriffs Association's technology committee, according to AP.

"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," Brown said.

In November 2013, Sheriff Brown defended his department's practice of tracking the movements of law abiding motorists using license plate readers. Each piece of data on the travel movements of ordinary residents was retained by his department for at least three months, a practice Brown assured skeptical city councilors was "reasonable."

Whenever law enforcement's tracking of our movements or social media use is criticized, apologists for omnipotent surveillance say the same thing: You are driving and tweeting in public, and therefore you have no right to privacy. Police are free to track anyone's movements if they are making them on public streets, companies and law enforcement agencies argue.

But that isn't right.

After all, the constitution is a floor, not a ceiling. We can and should pass laws to prevent police from tracking our movements. We can and should encourage law enforcement to stop monitoring the social media accounts of people suspected of no crime, because it chills speech and doesn't advance public safety.

Police, however, are public servants. They do not have a right to privacy in public.

Officers like Sheriff Brown have some nerve, on the one hand claiming it's reasonable for police to track people simply because they are driving on public streets and on the other demanding citizens refrain from publishing their public whereabouts.

Let's hope Google passes on Brown's recommendation and leaves its app the way it is. People have a right to know what police are doing in our names and with our tax dollars. Contra Brown and his fellow officers who complain about the Waze app, there's nothing inappropriate about monitoring the police in the course of their public duties. The only inappropriate monitoring is going in the opposite direction.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.