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All you need is a bunch of smartphones to ruin Google Maps for everyone else

Published Feb 3rd, 2020 9:10PM EST
Google Maps Traffic
Image: XanderSt/Shutterstock

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Google Maps received a ton of new features last year. In 2019 alone, Google Maps received an incognito mode that lets you unlink some location data from your primary Google account, and started replicating Google’s other popular navigation app, Waze. Google Maps now supports some of the incident reports that are so popular among Waze users, which could make Google Maps even better at dealing with real-life traffic. After all, Google already has the ability to offer real-time traffic data which doesn’t rely on crowdsourced information, as is the case for Waze incident reports. But it turns out that the feature can be hacked fairly easily.

An artist loaded up Google Maps on 99 phones, placed them inside a cart, and then started walking the streets of Berlin, Germany while lugging the cart behind him. It turns out that running Google Maps fewer than 100 smartphones is enough to mess with Google’s algorithm and ruin everyone’s Google Maps experience for a few minutes. The whole experience was done in the name of art, but it also goes to show how one of Google Maps’ best features works — and, of course, how much location data Google can collect.

Simon Weckert wandering the streets of Berlin with a cart full of smartphones was immediately picked up by Google’s algorithm, but the computer didn’t know what was happening. All the pings from an increasing number of phones advancing at walking speeds told Google Maps that there must be traffic on that particular street, and Google marked those streets as congested. As you’ll see in the video, there was hardly any traffic around the artist.

Google Maps users are already familiar with what happened. The streets turned from green to red, an indication of traffic ahead. Any Google Maps users driving around the area would likely have attempted to avoid the red streets and seek a different route. Or, if they didn’t, they may have assumed Google Maps was busted.

The video below shows Google Maps’ status changing in real-time as the artist walks the streets, and it’s proof of how advanced the whole navigation system is when it comes to recognizing potential traffic jams.

It all relies on Google being able to collect location data from users, and location tracking is a delicate subject for the company after reports revealed Google has been tracking even those users who thought they’d paused tracking. However, for Google Maps, you need to have tracking enabled to actually use the app. And that’s probably the data Google uses to determine traffic congestion. Check out the full Google Maps hack video below:

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.