Senators Call for Brakes on Police Evasion Apps

They're the 21st century version of the dashboard radar detector: smartphone apps that alert drivers to speed traps and police DUI checkpoints. But a group of Democratic U.S. senators says they're more public safety hazard than public right, and wants them gone.

They’re the 21st century version of the dashboard radar detector: smartphone apps that alert drivers to speed traps and police DUI checkpoints. But a group of Democratic U.S. senators says they’re more public safety hazard than public right, and wants them gone.

Senators Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) this week delivered a letter to Scott Forstall, Apple’s senior vice president of iPhone Software, urging the company to remove the applications they call “harmful to public safety.”

“We know that your company shares our desire to end the scourge of drunk driving and we therefore would ask you to remove these applications from your store,” the senators said in their letter.

The Senators did not identify any specific apps in their letter, but were likely referring to apps such as PhantomAlert, Fuzz Alert Pro and Checkpointer that can alert drivers to DUI checkpoints, radar speed zones and red light cameras in real time.

They said one, unnamed, application, with over 10 million users, lets users alert each other to the presence of DUI checkpoints, while another contains a database of DUI checkpoints updated in real-time.

The Senators also sent the same letter to executives at Google and Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the Android Marketplace and The Blackberry App World, respectively.

The maker of the BlackBerry line of smartphones has agreed to remove applications that assist drivers in evading DUI checkpoints after pressure from Senate Democrats.

Research in Motion said it would comply by Wednesday with a request from Senate Democrats that it get rid of the application. Democrats who had pressed for the action quickly hailed the move.

As of Wednesday, Google and Apple had yet to respond to either the senators’ letter or media requests for comment.

In the letter, the senators cite both a recent USA Today article in which a police captain says the popular checkpoint alert apps are troubling, and the sobering statistic that more than 10,000 Americans dying in drunk-driving crashes every year.

The leaders also question the companies as to whether the apps are really the best use of their technological pursuits.

“We appreciate the technology that has allowed millions of Americans to have information at their fingertips, but giving drunk drivers a free tool to evade checkpoints, putting innocent families and children at risk, is a matter of public concern,” the letter said.

Just last September, Apple released a set of App Store guidelines to combat confusion and specify what the company’s apps are and are not allowed to do. Included on that list of “not allowed,” are “apps that encourage excessive consumption of alcohol or illegal substances, or encourage minors to consume alcohol or smoke cigarettes.”

Yet the strongly worded request from the senators is the second backlash to hit Apple over a controversial app this week alone.

More than 150,000 people signed their names to an online petition protesting Apple’s decision to allow an app from a Christian group in the App Store that claimed to “cure” homosexuality. Apple responded to that outcry by quietly removing the so-called “gay cure” app from its store.

“We removed the app from the App Store because it violates our developer guidelines by being offensive to large groups of people,” an Apple spokesman confirmed to ABCNews.com of its decision on the anti-gay app.

Here is a full copy of the senators’ letter:

Mr. Scott Forstall

Senior Vice President, iPhone Software
Apple, Inc.

1 Infinite Loop

Cupertino, CA 95014

Dear Mr. Forstall,

We write today with grave concern regarding the ease with which downloadable applications for the iPhone, iPad, and other Apple products allow customers to identify where local police officers have set up DUI checkpoints. With more than 10,000 Americans dying in drunk-driving crashes every year, providing access to iPhone and iPad applications that alert users to DUI checkpoints is harmful to public safety.

We know that your company shares our desire to end the scourge of drunk driving and we therefore would ask you to remove these applications from your store.

One application, your company acknowledges in the product description, contains a database of DUI checkpoints updated in real-time. Another application, with more than 10 million users, also allows users to alert each other to DUI checkpoints in real time.

Police officers from across the country have voiced concern about these products, with one police captain saying, “If people are going to use those, what other purpose are they going to use them for except to drink and drive?” With a person dying every 50 minutes in a drunk-driving crash, this technology should not be promoted to your customers–in fact, it shouldn’t even be available.

We appreciate the technology that has allowed millions of Americans to have information at their fingertips, but giving drunk drivers a free tool to evade checkpoints, putting innocent families and children at risk, is a matter of public concern. We hope that you will give our request to remove these applications from your store immediate consideration.

Thank you for your prompt and careful consideration of this matter. Should you have additional questions, please do not hesitate to contact our offices.

Sincerely,

Senator Reid

Senator Schumer

Senator Lautenberg

Senator Udall