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You may have heard stories of foolish drivers obliviously following the directions from their map apps, only to end up stuck in the middle of nowhere. For example, last year nearly 100 drivers in Colorado ended up gridlocked in a muddy field after Google Maps redirected them there to circumvent a traffic jam. It’s easy to think that you’d never end up in that situation because you wouldn’t let a software glitch steer you off the pavement, but it might not be so simple. What if someone actively tricked your map app into redirecting you in a more subtle manner? This is exactly what happened when German performance artist Simon Weckert took to the streets of Berlin with a little red wagon full of smartphones.
Weckert’s plan was simple: he collected 99 used cell phones, loaded up Google Maps on each, and placed them in a wagon. Then he simply pulled the wagon down the road at walking pace, causing each phone to report a slow movement speed. This accumulation of data caused Google Maps to automatically turn the street from green to red, marking it as a traffic jam and redirecting nearby devices to a different route. He documented this in the video below:
This “virtual traffic jam” accomplished Weckert’s goal of creating “an impact in the physical world by navigating cars on another route to avoid being stuck in traffic.” He considered hacking Google Maps a form of performance art, and had no intention of harming anyone. However, others might use similar techniques for malicious purposes. Organized criminals could theoretically divert drivers away from an area to create a clear escape route, or worse yet, steer commuters into a choke point to create a real traffic jam prior to an attack. Consider how many people use Google Maps and similar apps on a daily basis, and you’ll understand the potential effects of such an incident.