Senators to Apple: Pull iPhone DUI checkpoint alert apps

Four U.S. senators say iPhone, Android and BlackBerry apps like PhantomALERT 'harmful to public safety'

Four U.S. senators Tuesday called on Apple to yank iPhone and iPad apps that help drunken drivers evade police, saying the programs are "harmful to public safety."

The CEO of the company that makes one such app said the senators' demand was "a knee-jerk reaction."

Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Tom Udall (D-NM) asked Scott Forstall, the head of Apple's iPhone software group, to pull an unspecified number of apps from the company's App Store. The senators also made similar requests of Google's CEO Eric Schmidt and Research in Motion's (RIM) co-CEOs, James Balsillie and Michael Lazaridis.

"Giving drunk drivers a free tool to evade checkpoints, putting innocent families and children at risk, is a matter of public concern," the senators said in a letter to the executives at the three companies. "We hope that you will give our request to remove these applications from your store immediate consideration."

The four had problems with apps that included alerts of upcoming sobriety checkpoints. It's unclear how many apps are in the senators' sights -- they identified just one, PhantomALERT -- but there are dozens that warn drivers of user-reported speed traps, roving radar-equipped patrol cars and accidents. Many integrate the smartphone's integrated GPS to display police and accident locations.

Not all pitch their ability to alert drivers of nearby checkpoints, however. One is PhantomALERT.

On its App Store description, the program touts itself as providing "the world's largest driver generated and verified database of speed traps, red light cameras, speed cameras, school zones, DUI checkpoints, dangerous intersections and more across North America."

PhantomALERT is produced by a Harrisburg, Penn.-based company of the same name.

"I think this is a knee-jerk reaction," said Joe Scott, the CEO OF PhantomALERT, in an e-mail reply to a request for comment. "PhantomALERT is a 100% legal service. If they really understood what we are doing and aim to achieve they would actually support us."

Scott argued that his company's app was doing little more than broadcasting the information distributed by the police themselves.

"Many police departments promote or advertise DUI [driving under the influence] crackdowns through the media as PSAs or through PR," Scott said. "We are just taking it a bit further and pushing the info to drivers through GPS and smart phone technology. The idea is to deter drivers from drinking and driving. When drivers get alerts for DUI checkpoints on their smart phones and GPS, they will think twice about drinking and driving."

Other apps also boast of their anti-DUI checkpoint skills.

"DUI or DWI [driving while intoxicated] stops are constantly changing whereas many of the red light and speed cameras are fixed positions," reads the Web site of FuzzAlert, another iOS app. "We wish this function would never have to be put in the app. That being said, the app wouldn't be complete without this type of law and traffic enforcement type."

PhantomALERT offers apps for the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry; FuzzAlert, however, is available only on the iPhone. Unlike Google, Apple only allows iPhone and iPad users to download sanctioned software from its App Store, giving the senators a single choke point in their demand for the apps' removal.

Reid, who is the Senate majority leader, joined with Schumer, Lautenberg and Udall to ask Apple, Google and RIM to remove the software from their app stores.

Apple, Google and RIM did not immediately reply to requests for comment on the senators' letter.

Lt. Gregg Hastings of the Oregon State Police said that in some instances such apps may be helpful.

"We don't feel one way or the other," said Hastings, the agency's public information officer. "If things like these apps increase awareness on the part of drivers to slow down and drive to the signs posted and the conditions, that helps people stay alert and drive safely."

Hastings, however, said that the Oregon State Police had no opinion on the DUI/DWI aspects of such apps because Oregon law enforcement is not allowed to conduct sobriety checkpoints, having abandoned them more than a decade ago after a state Supreme Court decision ruled them unconstitutional.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, Oregon is in the minority; 38 states as well as the District of Columbia allow police to run DUI/DWI checkpoints.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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