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.
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.