Artist Simon Weckert went viral this weekend for taking advantage of the way Google Maps identifies traffic in order to create a fake traffic jam.
In a video posted to YouTube, Weckert is seen pulling a cart containing 99 smartphones down a quiet street. All the phones are loaded with Google Maps in navigation mode, and in a side-by-side shot you can see how as Weckert walks down the street with his phones, Maps quickly begins to display a red line on the street, signifying heavy traffic — even though Weckert is basically the only person around.
Maps is crowdsourcing its traffic data — This works because of the way Google Maps collects data from its users and incorporates it back into the product. Maps sees a lot of “users” suddenly navigating down one street and decides that means traffic must be high. It then tries to re-route other users headed in that direction. Google confirmed this behavior to 9to5Google.
The company has received flak for this — Google has responded to criticism around its quiet data collection in Maps and introduced new privacy options that allow users to disable it. Google argues that without this type of data Maps would be less useful — it wouldn’t be able to tell you when there’s heavy traffic along your route, or the quietest parts of the day to visit a restaurant. Collecting your location gives it valuable data for navigation purposes — and information Google uses to "personalize" its advertising.
Weckert’s “hack” is certainly subversive but I don’t think it’s a practical way for someone to really wreak havoc. More than anything it’s a clear example of the precise levels of data being collected on us, and a clue as to why Google’s ad business is unbeatable. Maps is a good product that’s “free” for a reason. The company made $162 billion in revenue in 2019, mostly from advertising.