Have you ever dodged a traffic jam using Google Maps? I have… or at least I thought I had until today. Turns out, all you need to create a fake traffic jam is 99 mobile phones and a hand cart.
In Germany artist Simon Weckert successfully tricked Google Maps into reporting a traffic jam that didn’t exist, diverting swathes of traffic away from a busy road (that just happened to run right outside Google’s offices) simply by walking slowly along the road pushing a hand-cart containing 99 phones, all sharing their location data with Google Maps.
So far, so “ha ha Google are dumb”. Even Google seemed to think it was all jolly good fun and laughed it off
“Whether via car or cart or camel, we love seeing creative uses of Google Maps as it helps us make maps work better over time.”
— A Google spokesperson
But there’s a darker side to this that warrants exploration. I’ve lauded Google’s data sharing in Google Maps before as a great use of crowd-sourced data actually benefiting the the people who are sharing it. But if the system is so easy to fool, if Google is this dumb, is it a system we should be trusting as implicitly as we do?
What happens to traffic in a city if more than one person decides to copy this trick and make more than one road pseudo-impassable? Blocking traffic and disrupting travel has become a significant and important tactic of groups like Extinction Rebellion. What if, instead of needing a large group of people to block a road, you just needed a rucksack full of mobile phones? What if you were able to use those jams to redirect traffic to smaller roads creating… an actual traffic jam?
In ancient times, maps were incredibly important and cartographers changed the face of the world by letting us know what the face of the Earth actually looked like. Today, if you’ve got a smartphone then you have a street level atlas of most corners of the Earth in your pocket. Or at least, you think you do.
The question you should now be asking is… just how accurate is it and who is controlling where your directions lead?