DUI checkpoint apps and the App Store don't mix

When U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer asked Apple to remove iOS apps that focus on “allowing drunk drivers to avoid police checkpoints,” I expected Apple would quickly remove the apps from the App Store and the whole issue would soon pass. It hasn’t worked out that way.

As of this writing you can still grab apps like Buzzed and Fuzz Alert Pro in the App Store for a buck apiece. Google, too, offers similar apps via its Android market. And senators who first raised the issue two months ago are beginning to lose patience—on Thursday, Senator Tom Udall criticized Apple and Google for not removing the apps during Senate hearings on mobile privacy.

Crazy, right? This is Apple we’re talking about. Porn-hating, app-rejecting Apple. In the past, Apple has rejected apps for displaying tweets with salty language, or even for showcasing political cartoons, though in those instances the company eventually changed its mind. (Disclaimer: I myself have had an app rejected from the App Store.)

Why would Apple, which has rejected apps for all sorts of reasons, tacitly defend programs that let people avoid drunk driving checkpoints? I was certainly ready to jump up on my soapbox and toss around words like “complicit” and “turpitude.” But as I looked more closely at the apps under discussion, I discovered, to my surprise, that the situation was more complex than I’d originally thought.

The apps in question

When testifying at Senator Al Franken’s subcommittee hearing on location data earlier this month, Apple’s vice president of software technology Bud Tribble had this to say about the checkpoint avoidance apps:

One of the things we found is that some of these apps are actually publishing data on when and where the checkpoints are [using information] published by the police departments. In some cases, the police department actually publishes when and where they’re going to have a checkpoint… They believe that these checkpoints provide a deterrent effect.

Tribble’s point here is actually reasonable. If police departments are publicly sharing data about where and when to expect their DUI checkpoints, it’s a lot harder for me (or Senator Schumer) to suggest a ban on apps that leverage said data. Rather, the senator should perhaps turn his objection to those state or local laws that require police departments to publish such data; blocking apps because they use publicly available data makes no sense.

Buzzed is one of numerous “implied consent” apps in the App Store. Apps like Buzzed seem more in line with what Tribble described; they relay data from those public police databases about sobriety checkpoints. Buzz’s developers claim that the app isn’t “intended to help drivers get around checkpoints or police efforts to deter drunk driving,” and that it’s rather aimed at helping “police departments to more efficiently notify the public if, when and where they are going to be cracking down on this terrible crime.” You, I, and the Buzzed developers know that’s baloney, but I do believe that—as I said above—it’s tougher to object to apps like this. It’s true that DUI checkpoints are often set up as a deterrent, rather than as a way to catch offenders, and perhaps apps like Buzzed do help in that regard. Of course, since Buzzed’s developers say that they are working on “an upgrade that will send you a pop up notification when you enter within a 10 mile radius” of such a checkpoint, I remain doubtful about the purity of their intentions.

Fuzz Alert’s methodology is a bit different from the one Buzzed employs. The app sports a Radar Mode that alerts drivers when they’re close to red light cameras, speed cameras, “live police,” and DUI/DWI checkpoints. To determine how Fuzz Alert gathers that data, I went to its Website, which clearly states:

Fuzz Alert compiles a list of speed traps and other traps based off user input to the iphone application or directly from the fuzz alert website. [sic]

This, to me, is another beast entirely. Apps like DUI Dodger and Trapster work much like Fuzz Alert. These apps rely on crowdsourced data about where the police are looking for law-breaking drivers. (To be clear, I object a lot less to sharing data about red light cameras, which clearly need further study; it’s been suggested that, in some cases, they could lead to an increase in car accidents.)

I spoke with Fuzz Alert CEO Steve Croke about my concerns over his app. He regrets that his app “has gotten lumped into the whole DUI category,” since community-based tracking of DUI patrols and checkpoints is just “a portion of my app” and that Fuzz Alert “was never intended to be a DUI app.”

The way Croke sees it, there’s no difference between his app and two friends walking out of a bar, with one encouraging the other who might have had a few too many to take a cab. Of course, in this hypothetical, one friend can take the other’s keys and drive him home—there isn’t an app for that.

“Is it the software that’s a problem, or the responsibility of the intoxicated person to make the right decision?” he asked me.

There’s an argument to be made there, just as there’s an argument that communities of like-minded folk should be able to share information about where police are on the lookout for life-endangering drunk drivers. But that doesn’t mean Apple should support such an effort, even tacitly. While I can use my iPhone to look up all sorts of naughty and even unlawful information, Apple often shies away from approving apps with access to that content. I don’t feel good about apps that allow folks to swap information about which roads to avoid if they're hoping not to get busted for driving while drunk.

Steve Jobs has said that the App Store rejects porn apps because “we [Apple] do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone.” I’m stunned that the review team didn’t feel a similar moral impulse to reject Fuzz Alert. Drivers under the influence, who may be further distracted by an app that aims to help them avoid detection, seem like a much more significant threat to the safety of others than adult content.

For his part, Croke says he’s “not blind to the fact that this is an issue… There’s clearly a gray area here. I just don’t think it’s a good approach to pick someone out in a Senate hearing, and say—this guy, his intent is 100 percent to get people out of DUIs. I want to be a responsible citizen.”

Responsible enough to pull the DUI/DWI tracking from Fuzz Alert? “This has opened my eyes to some things… Hopefully you might see some changes to the app fairly soon,” Croke told me.

Apple’s next step

Much as I appreciate Croke’s theoretical change of heart—and appreciate it I do—we shouldn’t need to rely on his crisis of conscience. This is an Apple issue, and one that Apple should handle. How?

First and foremost, I think the company should act. As we know, Apple doesn’t always rush to make statements when controversies arise; the company instead chooses a more deliberate pace to research the issue as necessary. Indeed, during Thursday's Senate hearings, Apple vice president of worldwide government affairs Catherine Novelli said that Apple is “reviewing the situation and determining the best course of action in a thoughtful manner.”

I’ll be surprised, frankly, if the company decides to issue a blanket ban on apps that report on sobriety checkpoints. What I expect—and urge—is that Apple will draw the finer line that I’m attempting to trace here: Apps that report on public data should be permitted, but apps that solicit community contributions to help people avoid police detection should not.

Apple could even go a step further, and institute a specific rule preventing sobriety checkpoint apps from using push notifications to warn drivers about nearby checkpoints. Creating a specific rule focused on apps that relay sobriety checkpoint data already comes with some complexity; further specifying how (or if) those apps could use notifications is more complicated still. But it strikes me as the best approach.

Whatever response Apple settles on, it's quite clear a response is required. U.S. Senators first brought up the issue in a March 22 letter to Apple, and Schumer is pressing Apple for a response within a month. It’s time for Apple to step up and answer.

[Lex Friedman is a staff writer for Macworld.]

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