Six Reasons Why Google Maps Is the Creepiest App On Your Phone

VICE has highlighted six reasons why Google Maps is the creepiest app on your phone. An anonymous reader shares an excerpt from the report:

1. Google Maps Wants Your Search History: Google’s “Web & App Activity” settings describe how the company collects data, such as user location, to create a faster and “more personalized” experience. In plain English, this means that every single place you’ve looked up in the app — whether it’s a strip club, a kebab shop or your moped-riding drug dealer’s location — is saved and integrated into Google’s search engine algorithm for a period of 18 months. Google knows you probably find this creepy. That’s why the company uses so-called “dark patterns” — user interfaces crafted to coax us into choosing options we might not otherwise, for example by highlighting an option with certain fonts or brighter colors.

2. Google Maps Limits Its Features If You Don’t Share Your Search History: If you open your Google Maps app, you’ll see a circle in the top right corner that signifies you’re logged in with your Google account. That’s not necessary, and you can simply log out. Of course, the log out button is slightly hidden, but can be found like this: click on the circle > Settings > scroll down > Log out of Google Maps. Unfortunately, Google Maps won’t let you save frequently visited places if you’re not logged into your Google account. If you choose not to log in, when you click on the search bar you get a “Tired of typing?” button, suggesting you sign in, and coaxing you towards more data collection.

3. Google Maps Can Snitch On You: Another problematic feature is the “Google Maps Timeline,” which “shows an estimate of places you may have been and routes you may have taken based on your Location History.” With this feature, you can look at your personal travel routes on Google Maps, including the means of transport you probably used, such as a car or a bike. The obvious downside is that your every move is known to Google, and to anyone with access to your account. And that’s not just hackers — Google may also share data with government agencies such as the police. […] If your “Location History” is on, your phone “saves where you go with your devices, even when you aren’t using a specific Google service,” as is explained in more detail on this page. This feature is useful if you lose your phone, but also turns it into a bonafide tracking device.

4. Google Maps Wants to Know Your Habits: Google Maps often asks users to share a quick public rating. “How was Berlin Burger? Help others know what to expect,” suggests the app after you’ve picked up your dinner. This feels like a casual, lighthearted question and relies on the positive feeling we get when we help others. But all this info is collected in your Google profile, making it easier for someone to figure out if you’re visiting a place briefly and occasionally (like on holiday) or if you live nearby.

5. Google Maps Doesn’t Like It When You’re Offline: Remember GPS navigation? It might have been clunky and slow, but it’s a good reminder that you don’t need to be connected to the internet to be directed. In fact, other apps offer offline navigation. On Google, you can download maps, but offline navigation is only available for cars. It seems fairly unlikely the tech giant can’t figure out how to direct pedestrians and cyclists without internet.

6. Google Makes It Seem Like This Is All for Your Own Good: “Providing useful, meaningful experiences is at the core of what Google does,” the company says on its website, adding that knowing your location is important for this reason. They say they use this data for all kinds of useful things, like “security” and “language settings” — and, of course, selling ads. Google also sells advertisers the possibility to evaluate how well their campaigns reached their target (that’s you!) and how often people visited their physical shops “in an anonymized and aggregated manner”. But only if you opt in (or you forget to opt out).

Is the Reliance on GPS Shrinking Our Brains?

“Neuroscientists can now see that brain behavior changes when people rely on turn-by-turn directions,” says science writer M.R. O’Connor, citing a study of personal GPS devices co-authored by Kent-based cognitive neuroscience researcher Amir-Homayoun Javadi:

What isn’t known is the effect of GPS use on hippocampal function when employed daily over long periods of time. Javadi said the conclusions he draws from recent studies is that “when people use tools such as GPS, they tend to engage less with navigation. Therefore, brain area responsible for navigation is less used, and consequently their brain areas involved in navigation tend to shrink.”

How people navigate naturally changes with age. Navigation aptitude appears to peak around age 19, and after that, most people slowly stop using spatial memory strategies to find their way, relying on habit instead. But neuroscientist Veronique Bohbot has found that using spatial-memory strategies for navigation correlates with increased gray matter in the hippocampus at any age. She thinks that interventions focused on improving spatial memory by exercising the hippocampus — paying attention to the spatial relationships of places in our environment — might help offset age-related cognitive impairments or even neurodegenerative diseases. “If we are paying attention to our environment, we are stimulating our hippocampus, and a bigger hippocampus seems to be protective against Alzheimer’s disease,” Bohbot told me in an email.