Waze, Wars, Wanton Disregard for User Privacy

I’ve decided to jot some things down about the recent Israeli Waze-featured controversy. While the main facts have been reported in the English language Isaraeli and international press, there were certain aspects reported in Hebrew that are of interest for those researching digital maps.

Waze Editor's view of Qualandia Camp
Waze Editor’s view of Qualandia Camp

The Facts.

On the night Monday, February 29, 2016, two Israeli soldiers erroneously entered the Qualandia refugee camp north of Jerusalem. Their vehicle was then shot upon, targeted by a fire bomb, and ignited. The soldiers escaped on foot, the military sent in retrieval teams. In the ensuing shoot-outs, a Palestinian was killed, 4 injured by live ammunition, 12 by rubber bullets. 5 Israeli soldiers were wounded (casualty numbers are from HaAretz, as always, they rely on biased sources). The lost soldiers were from the staff (non-combatant) detachment of the Oketz canine unit. They were not familiar with the area and entered the camp due to Waze app suggesting the shortest route. Waze issued a statement denying responsibility and blaming the two for turning default features that would have prevented entering territories not fully under Isareli control (B and C areas of the west bank). Their commanders told that the soldiers disregarded orders demanding a planned (paper) map route to be outlined before each drive in an unfamiliar areas.

The Context.

Due to mandatory draft, and perhaps somewhat counter intuitively to outsiders, soldiers lives are valued very high in Israel. Everyone is somebody’s son, daughter, father, mother, etc. One of the memorable episodes of the second Intifada happened when two reservist soldier got lost and captured by Palestinian security forces, which then let an angry mob to brutally lynch them and display their bodies. Similarly, both 2006 Second Lebanon War and the 2006 first large Gaza operation since the withdrawal.  Bargaining for kidnapped combatants or the release of their bodies has become a macabre motif in Israeli security and foreign relations, to the extent that currently, a widely believed (albeit officially denied) “Hannibal Directive” authorises the use of lethal force in the event of kidnapping, even at the cost of the victim’s life in order to prevent future extortionist of Israeli public opinion. Arguably, such directive was activated in the case above, thus resulting in major destruction and casualties. HaAretz senior military correspondent Amos Harel has commented that the two “had more luck than brains” [Hebrew, paywall], as we tend to say in Hebrew.

Additionally, it’s worth knowing in this context that Waze is a national darling. It’s widely used and it’s purchase by Google boosted once more the self esteem of the “start-up nation”. Waze is ubiquitous and daily like sliced bread.

The Waze Controversy.

Here is where it gets interesting for us. Maps have been blamed for wars ever since there were maps and wars. The fact that we were perhaps quite close to starting a new one due to a GPS navigational app simply means we are in the future now. Waze reacted by releasing this statement:

[Waze] includes a specific default setting that prevents routes through areas which are marked as dangerous or prohibited for Israelis to drive through. In this case, the setting was disabled. In addition, the driver deviated from the suggested route and, as a result, entered the prohibited area. There are also red signs on the road in question that prohibit access to Palestinian-controlled territories (for Israelis). It is the responsibility of every driver to adhere to road and traffic signs and obey local laws.

Blogger and critic Ido Kenan [Hebrew] asked Haaretz correspondent Oded Yaron for Waze’s full responses. Yaron provided it (including the section above) and also noted that his original question didn’t even include the specifics of this case. In a column he later published [Hebrew] he points that his main question pertained to a viral Facebook post [Hebrew] that accused right-wingers for pressuring Waze into removing safety feature that prevent Israelis entering dangerous territories, under the guise of “it’s all our land!” rhetoric. Yaron notes that note only Waze did not answer this specific question, but instead they provided the soldier’s personal data, without any justification or legal requirement. As both Kenan and Yaron highlight, this goes against numerous Waze’s and Google’s privacy statements, EULAs and policy declarations.

What’s more interesting, not only Waze knew the location and route (both suggested and actual) of the soldiers, retained this information several hours after and was able to provide it selectively – this is to be expected from a navigational app – but they also knew which user specific features were turned at the time. With the forthcoming rise of vehicle automation, this blame-shifting (“they turned off a default-enabled feature”) might be coming around often.

When Sam and I wrote our Waze article few years back, we noted that

Other satellite navigation systems present the driving world as an immutable ‘base map’ upon which to plant the individual driver. But this world is bare and lifeless; phenomena are rendered foundational but unerringly quiet and impervious to change. The driver simply glides over the surface with no knowledge of what is “below”, let alone with the possibility of altering it. In the Waze world the digital map exists on the same ontological plane as the road environment itself – as a fluid, transportable object.

In the case above, Waze’s agency in deleting the ontological distinction between map and world (or map and tour, a’ la’ De Certeau) went up a level. The app changed the world in a very real way, causing a clash of violence (a mundane, expected clash – but still) and then tried to shift blame on the users, while callously sacrificing their privacy and anonymity for the greater act of “social driving”.

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