The last thing that you want to see when you are about to head to or from work is a traffic jam on the map on your phone. Now you have to alter your schedule and maybe leave at a different time to arrive on time. But is there really a traffic jam? There might not be one and relying on a map app like Google Maps might not be the best way to determine it.

No One Likes Traffic

Let’s face it, we don’t live in a big city like say Baltimore to our south. There the local news outlets have access to a helicopter that can observe traffic from the sky and a vast array of cameras that determine just how much of a mess the Beltway is at rush hour. No, here in York we are not quite as fortunate. 

Now, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Sure we have traffic as anyone who has been out on Route 30 at rush hour can attest but we don’t have the same volume. When you pull up the map the traffic overlay looks pretty similar day in and day out. But have you ever wondered just how that is determined?

It is not determined by a complex camera system using mathematical formulas to determine how fast people are going or even by the traffic chopper or drone. It is actually much easier to do and it relies on you having your phone on you. 

Google Maps

Google determined traffic by taking anonymous location data from phones that run the Google Maps app. If a lot of phones are on a road and they are moving very slowly it will show a traffic jam on the map. 

That seems like a fairly easy way to determine it actually but can it be manipulated? Yes it can. A Berlin, Germany-based artist named Simon Weckert decided to do just that to show the value and impact of technology after viewing Maps during a demonstration in Berlin and the protests in Hong Kong. He wanted to see how Maps reacted to the crowds that closed off streets but concluded that many of the users were not actively using Maps. 

Hacking Maps

Weckert loaded 99 smartphones that had Maps navigation turned on, loaded them into a wagon and pulled it down a street near Google’s Berlin office. It did not take long for the streets that he pulled the wagon down to turn darker and darker shades of red but in some cases he had to move up and down the street several times to force a change. Cameras in the area showed little or no traffic on the streets.

Weckert found that just simply having 99 smartphones using the Maps application was not enough. He had to keep them moving to get the jam to show up. Interestingly when a car would go down the street that he was on at regular speed it would remove the jam from the map for a few seconds so all it would take would be one person to potentially spoil this. 

Potential For Real Problems

Think about the implications of this. It would be possible to manipulate traffic data, either as part of a malicious action or as a joke. It could force emergency vehicles to alter their route believing that a traffic jam is ahead when there is none wasting precious minutes or divert them to deal with a non-existent problem. Criminals could do this to create the illusion of a traffic jam to keep people away from an area while they commit a crime or to just create a real traffic jam. 

Or it could impact regular people if a local radio station uses Maps for their traffic report by spreading disinformation. The biggest issue would be with GPS systems that would reroute a user onto another route to avoid this “traffic” making a journey potentially more complicated than it needs to be. 

Could It Really Happen?

Is this likely to happen? Probably not. It seems like a large investment that would have very little actual payoff and would depend on people actually actively using the Maps app. In some cases it would also depend on people not looking out their windows in the affected areas to not see the lack of traffic. It would also require a lot of eye-catching effort on the part of the pranksters/criminals. But it is still possible.

Google is actually able to distinguish between cars and motorcycles and this ability has been introduced in countries like Indonesia, India and Egypt but it seems it is not able to distinguish between a wagon just yet. 

Of course when it comes to technology finding hacks or exploits like this can help to make the technology better and that is a good thing. Sometimes you have to think outside of the box to find issues like this and while it is unlikely to be used in the wild there is always that possibility. It was better that the issue was found by an artist and not by a bank thief. Perhaps in a future update to Maps it will be able to distinguish between someone walking, a car and motorcycle and a little red wagon.

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