Few apps made by a Big Tech company have improved more over the years than Google Maps. When it launched in 2005, it was a moderately better alternative to AOL’s MapQuest. With the rise of smartphones, it became truly essential to the lives of millions — upending incumbents whose entire business had been selling expensive, subscription-based in-car navigation systems. And with each passing year it improves: offering advice about when to change lanes, rerouting you to avoid traffic, and even telling you which exit to take when climbing out of the New York subway. Today is its 15th birthday.
It’s a happy story in a relatively dark time for consumer tech, so it makes sense that Google would want to celebrate. The company marked the occasion with a lightly refreshed design, including a good-looking new pin-shaped logo. It also sat for a portrait in Wired, where Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai took a victory lap with Lauren Goode and Boone Ashworth:
“Overall, I think computing should work in a way where it’s much more intuitive to the way people live and not the other way around,” Pichai says. “AR and Maps is really in the sweet spot of that, because as humans we’re walking around the world, perceiving a lot, trying to understand a lot.” Pichai says he sees a future in which Maps users are walking around and an AR layer of information is popping up in Maps, showing them vegetarian menu options at nearby restaurants.
That doesn’t mean AR in Google Maps works like magic now—or will in the near future. “We talk about the double-edge sword of AR,” says Alex Komoroske, director of product management at Maps. “If you get it exactly right, it’s extremely intuitive. But if we get it wrong, it is actively confusing. It’s worse than showing nothing.”
People walking around and finding themselves subject to ubiquitous computing — whether they like it or not — is a subject that has been in the news constantly of late, as we debate the rise of for-profit facial recognition and tools like Clearview AI. It’s a story that, to my mind, starts with the rise of Google Maps.
But first, a bit of history.
“Worse than showing nothing” is what Google Maps was accused of a decade ago in Germany, where in the aftermath of the Stasi secret police, privacy-conscious Germans objected to the latest feature added to the app in the name of progress: Street View, which took photos of everyone’s homes and allows anyone to browse them at their leisure. In response to criticism, then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously suggested that people angry about the loss of privacy should simply move. (To where?!) Angry Germans sued, but ultimately lost. The courts ruled that, because the photos had been taken from a public road, and people could opt out of having their homes shown, their privacy had not been violated.
Of course, one reason that people object to these massive data-collection schemes is that they almost always gather more data than even their creators intend. Street View cars, for example, connected to unsecured Wi-Fi networks as they made their rounds between 2008 and 2010 — and when they did, slurped up “snippets of e-mails, photographs, passwords, chat messages, [and] postings on websites and social networks,” according to a 2012 story in the New York Times.
Google said it had all been a mistake and apologized, and Germany fined just shy of the maximum for a data privacy breach on that scale: a hilarious 145,000 euros. (I am not leaving out any zeroes on accident there.) In the intervening years, like most data privacy scandals, it has been more or less forgotten.
Still, the case feels freshly relevant in light of the past month’s news about Clearview AI. Like Google in 2008, Clearview slurps up public data — in this case, photos of people posted publicly on the internet — to build a for-profit tool without the permission of anyone involved.
In fact, much of the news in the past week has been companies (including Google!) leaping up to insist that Clearview does not have permission to build its Google-for-faces tool, which the company says it sells only to law enforcement. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Venmo have sent similar cease-and-desist letters.
No one seems terribly confident those letters will be effective, though. Last year, another for-profit company that LinkedIn sued for scraping its public content won its case. There are arguably some good reasons about that — the ability to scrape public sites is good for journalists and academics, for example.
Still, for all the reasons Kashmir Hill laid out in her initial profile of Clearview, the implications of a tool that immediately associates any face with a name are chilling to contemplate: stalking, blackmail, targeting protesters and dissidents, and so on. On Wednesday, BuzzFeed reported that the company is selling the technology to authoritarian regimes. (Even Schmidt, who had suggested that people move to avoid his fleet of Street View cars, said Google would never build a facial recognition database.)
The uses and potential misuses of Clearview’s technology strike me as plainly dangerous in a way that Street View never did. Google offered you a view of an address you could have visited yourself, and — critically — allowed homeowners to opt out of the program, blurring the view of their houses. Like other Google Maps features, it was conceived as a tool for helping people get around — not to empower the prison-industrial complex.
Still, for everything Google Maps did right — and I am a highly satisfied customer — it also heralded a new era in networked photography. You cannot make a previously unseen world visible without making it, at least in some ways, less secure. Look at the once-sleepy neighborhoods transformed into clogged wrecks the moment that Google Maps (through its acquisition of Waze) gained visibility into traffic patterns, and began rerouting the world in the name of efficiency. Once again, making something easier to see made a large group of people feel less safe.
On the whole, at least for me, I’d say it has been a good bargain. But as Maps turns 15, it seems worth noting that there’s a straight line from Street View to Clearview. We’re beginning to understand in America what Germans knew a decade ago — that whatever miracles technology can provide must always be weighed against the value of simply being left alone.
Clarification, 1/11: This article originally referred to Germany’s privacy sensitivity following the aftermath of the Nazi regime. It has been updated to refer more specifically to the Stasi secret police.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
🔼 Trending up: Google has quietly been conducting a five-year study on how to get employees to eat healthier — and so far, it appears to be working. The strategies include making plates slightly smaller, putting vegetables first in the buffet line, and funding a new curriculum at the Culinary Institute of America focused on making vegetables taste better.
⭐ Trump’s re-election campaign plans to spend more than $1 billion to ensure he gets a second term. Helping to spread his message is a vast array of partisan media, outside political groups, and enterprising freelance operatives. These pro-Trump forces are poised to wage what could be the most extensive disinformation campaign in US history. Here’s McKay Coppins at The Atlantic:
After the 2016 election, much was made of the threats posed to American democracy by foreign disinformation. Stories of Russian troll farms and Macedonian fake-news mills loomed in the national imagination. But while these shadowy outside forces preoccupied politicians and journalists, Trump and his domestic allies were beginning to adopt the same tactics of information warfare that have kept the world’s demagogues and strongmen in power.
Every presidential campaign sees its share of spin and misdirection, but this year’s contest promises to be different. In conversations with political strategists and other experts, a dystopian picture of the general election comes into view—one shaped by coordinated bot attacks, Potemkin local-news sites, micro-targeted fearmongering, and anonymous mass texting. Both parties will have these tools at their disposal. But in the hands of a president who lies constantly, who traffics in conspiracy theories, and who readily manipulates the levers of government for his own gain, their potential to wreak havoc is enormous.
Trump is the third president to be impeached, but he’s the first to go through the process in the social media era. This shift changed everything about how Americans understood the developments in the trial. (Cat Zakrzewski / The Washington Post)
Nevada’s Democratic Party is scrambling to figure out a better way to report results, after ditching plans to use an app like the cursed one that upended Iowa’s contest. The Nevada caucus is just about two weeks away. (Emily Glazer and Dustin Volz / The Wall Street Journal)
Vice’s Motherboard published the APK for The App that ruined the Iowa caucus. “Trust and transparency are core to the U.S. electoral process. That’s why Motherboard is publishing the app that malfunctioned in Iowa,” they said. (Jason Koebler / Vice)
Internet trolls deliberately disrupted the Iowa caucus hotline with numerous prank calls while officials were trying to report results. The prank callers included a number of Trump supporters. (Ben Collins, Maura Barrett and Vaughn Hillyard / NBC)
The Congressional investigation into Big Tech is putting pressure on the country’s top two antitrust enforcement agencies — the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice — which have historically been slow to act. Last summer, after Congress announced its probe, both agencies made similar announcements. (Jason Del Rey / Recode)
Child welfare advocates attacked Facebook’s plans to encrypt its messaging apps, saying it would allow child predators to operate with impunity on the company’s platforms. So far, the tech giant isn’t backing down. (Katie Benner and Mike Isaac / The New York Times)
The announcement of a second proposed California privacy law, the California Privacy Rights Act, set off a fresh wave of lobbying efforts from privacy advocates and executives at Google and Facebook. Many provisions within the new law are a direct result of these efforts. (Issie Lapowsky / Protocol)
European Union antitrust investigators are ramping up the investigation into Facebook’s data practices. They’re now looking for documents related to how the company allegedly leveraged access to user data to stifle competition. (Sam Schechner, Emily Glazer and Valentina Pop / The Wall Street Journal)
⭐ Two more content moderators — these ones working for Facebook through Cognizant — filed a class-action suit against the company on Wednesday. They worked at the Tampa site I profiled for The Verge last year. (Found out today that my piece on the Tampa site is a finalist for a National Magazine Award, by the way!) Here’s Kavitha Surana in the Tampa Bay Times:
The two filed a class-action lawsuit against Facebook and Cognizant on Wednesday, alleging the companies made content moderators work under dangerous conditions that caused debilitating physical and psychological harm and did little to help them cope with the traumas they suffered as a result. Jeudy also has filed a discrimination charge against Cognizant with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The lawsuit says the two companies ignored the very safety standards they helped create. It also alleges that Facebook’s outsourcing relationship with Cognizant is a way for the social media giant to avoid accountability for the mental health issues that result from moderating graphic content on the platform.
⭐ A leaked document shows TikTok waited to report a livestreamed suicide on its app in order to get its PR strategy in place. The company’s goal was to make sure the video didn’t go viral. That’s ... not terrible. But waiting three hours to call the police sure is. Paulo Victor Ribeiro at The Intercept reports:
According to the ByteDance source, TikTok’s chief of operations in Brazil and Latin America advised employees of the Brazilian office not to say anything about what had occurred. “Her orders were clear: ‘Don’t let it go viral,’” the source told me.
Twitter reported $1.01 billion in revenue for last quarter, thanks to strong advertising sales. It’s the first time the company’s revenue has broken the billion-dollar mark. Daily users were up, too, likely because of how good your tweets are. (Ingrid Lunden / TechCrunch)
Shoddy coronavirus studies keep going viral on social media. Some are coming from scientists who are rapidly posting findings about the outbreak without properly vetting the claims. Boo! (Stephanie M. Lee / BuzzFeed)
Pornhub hosts hundreds of explicit videos featuring footage of women who were not aware how the content will be used. The website’s solution to stop these videos from spreading is to fingerprint the videos after someone requests that they be taken down. This investigation shows how often this system fails. (Samantha Cole and Emanuel Maiberg / Vice)
Cycling is dangerous, but emoji are cute. So naturally:
Here comes Ford with a novel solution: an emoji jacket. As part of its “Share the Road” campaign to improve cycling safety, the automaker’s European division designed a cycling jacket with an LED display on the back that lights up with various emoji to convey the cyclist’s mood. A smiley face indicates a happy cyclist, a frowny face a less happy one, and so on. There are also directional symbols for when a cyclist intends to make a turn and a hazard symbol when they may be experiencing a flat tire.
I want one and I don’t even bike!