Fake News and Smartphones

A prankster creates Fake Road Traffic with a set of Smartphones…

A quirky picture of a red kids wagon that is as big as a car and has a motor.
A Street Ready Wagon found on Ebay built by John Davis of Cornelius, OR.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I saw on social media that you can use your phone to create a fake news traffic jam? I live in a neighborhood that gets a lot of traffic and I could use my phone to divert it. What do you think? Hani, Cambridge.

Dear Hani,

Let me start my saying that I don’t know how to reverse engineer it, but your phone is always used to monitor traffic. Most people don’t know this, but services like StreetLight data collect location data from your phone. Then they aggregate it and sell it to cities and towns that need to report traffic patterns. 

You can take steps to minimize what your phone sends by turning off GPS and Bluetooth. Most importantly, look through your apps and turn off permissions for location-data. You will be surprised how many apps are sending location data: apps  for cooking, meditation, shopping, etc.

Maps Need Data- You Need Maps

That said, you must allow location data when you use your phone for navigation, say when you open Google Maps or Waze. 

The incident you are referring to on social media was one I did not want to draw attention to for fear that it would spread through more channels. But, since you asked here is a brief summary. I will not add more fuel by gracing it with a picture!

Little Red Wagons

A performance and installation artist in Germany took a red wagon (think Radio Flyer) and filled it with 99 smart phones. Each one had the GPS activated so when he pulled the wagon on a side street  the color coded traffic map ‘summed’ 99 pings and registered “red” for traffic congestion. 

Google quickly issued a response (Yes!). It begins, “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.”  They add that they will be improving the algorithm to detect wagons versus cars.

Circle the Wagons too..

There are a few ways to look at this fake news story. First, kudos to Google for being polite and responsive to the wagonneer. Next, get on the wagon with your GPS turned off…or perhaps, GPS turned on, mindfully.


*9to5Google is not an official Google newsletter. It is a blog written about Google and other technology. This can be confusing (almost fake news!)

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