Update, February 4, 2020 (11:50 AM ET): Yesterday, we saw a statement from Google regarding the Google Maps “hack” detailed in the original article below. Now, we also have some more clarity on how the artist performed the “hack” in question.
In an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine (via 9to5Google), artist Simon Weckert says that each of the 99 smartphones in the wagon had their own connected SIM card and each one was actively using Maps for navigation. He discovered that if the wagon stopped moving, Maps would not show a traffic jam, so the wagon had to consistently be in motion for a jam to get registered.
Additionally, if a vehicle drove by the wagon at a normal speed, Maps would also register traffic as normal. It was only when the wagon was in motion and the street was empty that a traffic jam would show on Google Maps.
Google had this to say in response to the “hack” of using 99 smartphones to cause Maps to register false traffic jams:
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.
The company also reaffirmed its commitment to making Maps as accurate as possible. Google also pointed out in a tongue-in-cheek fashion that it can distinguish between cars and motorcycles in some regions around the world — but it hasn’t deduced a formula for wagons yet.
Original article, February 3, 2020 (03:16 AM ET): Technology is not always foolproof and that’s exactly what a new Google Maps experiment tried to prove. Artist Simon Weckert has posted a video on YouTube showing how he managed to “hack” Google Maps to create virtual traffic jams on the streets of Berlin.
For his experiment, Weckert loaded 99 smartphones running Google Maps into a cart. He then had someone wheel that cart around various streets in Berlin, including outside the Google office.
The phones apparently fooled Google Maps into thinking that there was a high concentration of users on those streets. Because the phones were in a cart, Maps was further tricked into believing that the traffic was slow-moving.
As a result, the navigation app started showing virtual traffic jams by turning green streets to red. You can watch the video below to see the trick in action.
Why did this happen?
Google Maps uses data generated by users to identify fast or slow moving traffic as well as traffic jams. By analyzing things like speed, location, and other crowdsourced data, Google generates a live traffic map of an area or a road.
Weckert apparently took advantage of these very Google Maps features to fool the app into marking streets as red. As a result, nearby users could have been diverted to other routes even though the streets in question were actually empty.
Of course, the whole thing could also be a ruse since the artist doesn’t really go into a lot of details in his post describing the so-called hack.
Google has not officially commented on Weckert’s experiment. However, a Senior Software Engineer for Google Maps has tweeted that he believes it’s possible to pull off such a stunt.
I work for Google maps and I know quite a bit about how this works. I believe this is possible.
— Torrey Hoffman (@torreyh) February 2, 2020
If true, this is definitely something the tech giant should look into fixing. Someone with malicious motives could take advantage of the loophole to actually mess with the service and its users.
For instance, a fake traffic jam could be created because of which emergency services like ambulances are diverted to longer routes. Google should conduct a full investigation into the matter so something like that doesn’t happen.