Google Maps, a web mapping service popularly used by people for route planning while traveling, was hacked by a man in Berlin to create a fake virtual traffic jam in the German capital.
Simon Weckert, a Berlin-based performance artist and prankster, who published a video on his YouTube channel and his blog, is seen wheeling 99 smartphones filled in a red handcart with the location turned on through the city streets (including the street right outside Google’s office in Berlin).
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For those unaware, Google is dependent on the number of Google Maps users in a particular area to assess traffic jam. For instance, if a large number of smartphones in a particular area are stationary or are moving slowly, Google Maps’ servers interpret this as traffic congestion.
The slow movement of Weckert’s handcart filled with 99 smartphones convinced Google Maps’ servers that there was traffic congestion. As a result, the ‘virtual traffic jam’ in Google Maps marked the streets bright red in the online navigational tool prompting drivers to take an alternative route and avoid what in reality were actually clear streets.
99 second-hand smartphones are transported in a handcart to generate virtual traffic jam in Google Maps. Through this activity, it is possible to turn a green street red which has an impact in the physical world by navigating cars on another route to avoid being stuck in traffic,” wrote Simon Weckert in the video description.
Through the video, Weckert wanted to draw attention to the blind faith many of us have in tech companies and digital platforms.
“Maps have the potential as an instrument of power for some intentions. They substitute political and military power. We are highly focused on [apps like Google Maps’] data and tend to see them as objective…Thus data are viewed as the world itself, forgetting that the numbers are only representing a model of the world,” Weckert told to Business Insider in a statement.
Responding to the “hack” of using 99 smartphones that caused Maps to create a virtual traffic jam, Google gave the following statement to 9to5Google hinting that it might use cases like this to improvise Maps’ handling of traffic data. The company also endorsed its commitment to making Maps as accurate as possible.
Traffic data in Google Maps is refreshed continuously thanks to information from a variety of sources, including aggregated anonymized data from people who have location services turned on and contributions from the Google Maps community. We’ve launched the ability to distinguish between cars and motorcycles in several countries including India, Indonesia and Egypt, though we haven’t quite cracked traveling by wagon.
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.
Although the hacking of Google Maps was a funny prank, the video does convey how digital technology that we depend on is not foolproof and can be easily manipulated. We hope that Google finds a workaround to prevent such similar exploitations from taking place in the future.
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