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Fake traffic jam, vandalised Android logo: Every time pranksters tricked Google Maps before its anniversary

Recently, a Berlin-based artist created a faux traffic jam outside Google office with 99 phones.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Feb 06, 2020, 05.40 PM IST
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​The prank came a few days before the 15th anniversary of Google Maps. ​
The prank came a few days before the 15th anniversary of Google Maps.
Google Maps has emerged as a handy tool that sends out oracular warnings to people about traffic jams on their regular commute, prompting them to take alternate routes to avoid running late. However, a Berlin-based artist proved this week that the popular app is not infallible by creating a faux traffic jam on one of the city’s main bridges using a handcart loaded with 99 second-hand phones. Cars sped by, but users of Google Maps were duped.

The artist Simon Weckert pulled off the stunt by pulling a red cart down some of the most congested thoroughfares in Berlin. The cart contained 99 phones, all connected to the internet and reporting their live location to Google’s server. This gave the online system the impression that there was a slow-moving cluster of vehicles (99 of them) trundling along at a walking pace.

Google Maps uses a two tone colour code to depict traffic: green and red, which represent clear and traffic-ridden roads. Weckert was able to turn a green street red, which caused multiple users of the app to alter their route to avoid getting stuck in traffic. The popular navigation app has also received slack for misguiding users new to certain neighbourhoods, the most notable example being the Mayor of a Sardinian village blaming Google Maps for lost tourists.

“Google’s map service has fundamentally changed our understanding of what a map is, how we interact with maps, their technological limitations, and how they look aesthetically. What is the relationship between the art of enabling and techniques of supervision, control and regulation in Google’s maps?


“Do these maps function as dispositive nets that determine the behaviour, opinions and images of living beings, exercising power and controlling knowledge? Maps, which themselves are the product of a combination of states of knowledge and states of power, have an inscribed power dispositive,” said Weckert, who quoted the German anthropologist Moritz Ahlert in his statement.

Ironically, a virtual traffic jam created by Weckert was in the street where Google’s Berlin office is located. A video released by the artist showed scant traffic on the streets, with only a few bicycles and electric scooters zooming past in their lanes.

Google replied to Weckert in a good-natured admission of the blind spot in their app, saying: “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 prank comes a few days before the 15th anniversary of Google Maps.

However, the jape highlights how miscreants can take advantage of Google Maps’ crowdsourcing model. The company was forced to discontinue its Map Maker feature in 2015 after some users vandalised the community-based platform by creating a virtual park in the shape of the Android logo, and showed it urinating on Apple’s.

The work, revealed just a few days before the 15th anniversary of Google Maps’ founding, is just the latest example of a prankster taking advantage of the “crowdsourced” nature of much of Google’s data collection.

In 2015, the company had to shut off one feature, Map Maker, after a series of embarrassing vandalism incidents culminated in the creation of a virtual park, the shape of which appeared to resemble the company’s Android mascot urinating on Apple’s logo. This imaginary park showed up on Waze, a navigation app that was taken over by Google in 2013.

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