Apps locate speed traps, udpate Amber Alerts, more

An increasing number of applications -- or apps -- released for iPhone,
BlackBerry and Android operating systems are related in some way to law
enforcement and emergency situations.

"There is just so much useful evidence on the phone," said Jonathan
Zdziarski, an iPhone forensics expert who developed the Amber Alert
application.

Area police agencies agree that law enforcement apps are on the rise --
though feelings are mixed as to whether that's a good thing.
"Information is good," said Harper Woods Police Chief Randolph
Skotarczyk, "but I do think we're heading to an area of information
overload."

"I think for your legitimate block clubs and good neighbors who are
interested in maintaining security -- and that's the majority of our
citizens -- it's a benefit to know what's going on from a crime-reporting
standpoint."

Cops have mixed feelings about law-enforcement phone apps

At 3:30 p.m. Thursday, the metro Detroit map highlighting supposed speed
traps on Trapster.com was marked with dozens of little red and yellow
dots.

One was at Moross and Harper in Harper Woods; another was a few blocks
away at Harper and Littlestone. Both dots served as warnings: There's a cop
in hiding, so slow down or you might get a speeding ticket.

They weren't exactly accurate, said Harper Woods Police Chief Randolph
Skotarczyk, who said officers don't set up shop at particular intersections
looking for speeders. Still, he doesn't mind the supposed hot spots being
sent to Trapster users to warn drivers to slow down.

What he does mind, however, is that the smartphone application that goes
along with Trapster likely will be used by motorists while driving, thus
creating a potential safety hazard.

Trapster is just one of a growing number of smartphone applications that
has a law-enforcement bent.

For example, there's Police Scanner, which allows average folk to listen
in on emergency dispatch traffic; Cannabis, which directs users to places
to buy legal marijuana; Your Rights, which outlines what law enforcement
can and can't do when interviewing suspects, and Offender Locator, which
locates sex offenders throughout the country.

In all, there are several hundred such law enforcement applications.

"Real-time information sharing is unavoidable," said Jonathan Zdziarski,
an iPhone forensics and application developer. "It's just a matter of how
the consumer base chooses to use it."

For people who haven't already hopped on the smartphone bandwagon, a
quick explainer: Phones such as the BlackBerry and iPhone have tens of
thousands of downloadable programs -- known as applications or apps --
available for people who want to play games, make to-do lists, edit
pictures, even track their parking spaces in case they get lost heading
back to their cars.

BlackBerry cracked the 50-million mark earlier this year, according to
its manufacturer, Research in Motion. Apple, which makes the iPhone,
announced last month that it also has sold more than 50 million iPhones and
iPod touches, and iPhone users have downloaded more than 2 billion apps.

Some of the programs are free. Others cost a few bucks -- usually topping
out in the $4.99 range. All compete with each other for a spot on the
owner's most-used list.

"We have formidable competition from Super Monkey Ball," said Pete
Tenereillo, developer of Trapster, referring to a game in which players
guide a monkey trapped in a ball through various obstacles.

About 2.5 million people use Trapster on iPhones, BlackBerries and the
Google-developed Android platform, Tenereillo said. Its content is
user-generated, meaning that people log in and input speed trap information
that is then disseminated to subscribers.

"What we're doing is crowd-sourcing," Tenereillo said, "or pulling
together information from a huge audience of people who work together in
real time."

Detroit Police Assistant Chief Ralph Godbee said the influx of such apps
is no different than the proliferation of radars and speed guns.

"Every time technology makes an improvement, law enforcement gets a step
ahead, and then people catch up," Godbee said. "That's just a natural
give-and-take with technology."

Tapping into police scanners

Some of the apps were designed specifically for law-enforcement agents
and their families, but then found an audience with crime buffs as well,
said David Kyle, product manager at Juicy Development in Orem, Utah, who
helped create Police Scanner.

The app streams the scanner activity of about 2,000 law-enforcement
agencies. Among its competition is the newly released Police Radio. Both
applications stream broadcasts from agencies nationwide. Among those
available in southeast Michigan: Detroit police and fire, Warren police and
fire, Oakland County Sheriff's Office and Ferndale police.

Godbee said such apps could be misused by astute criminals, but the
department's most sensitive communications, such as those involving
undercover officers, are encrypted.

"I think for your legitimate block clubs and good neighbors who are
interested in maintaining security -- and that's the majority of our
citizens -- it's a benefit to know what's going on from a crime-reporting
standpoint."

Missing-child sightings

Zdziarski, the Amber Alert developer, said apps like his will soon save
lives.

People with that free app can instantly learn about missing children and
click an icon to report sightings through their phones. Because the phones
have Global Positioning System (GPS) technology already embedded, police
are notified about the precise location of the sighting and can head that
way to search.

"We're harnessing the ability to receive a large number of reports with
GPS coordinates and provide a lot of intelligence to help locate missing
children," Zdziarski said. "Police can see almost instantaneously where
they get a small cluster of reports."

There hasn't been a known case of the application leading police to a
missing child, but Zdziarski is hopeful.

Law enforcement officials say they hope that people will use this new
technology intelligently.

"Those are great uses, unless you're set up to get alerts every three
seconds and it's distracting you from doing other things, like driving,"
Skotarczyk said.

"There's so much information out there, but we have to know how to filter
it and when to pay attention."

Information contributed by: Internet