The Three-Front Maps War: Google, Apple, and Your Privacy

Google's Liquid Galaxy display for Google Earth

We live in an exciting and quickly changing world, and Google is monetizing by mapping that world and us map users—both in incredible detail. “Google Earth has been downloaded by half a billion people. That makes it, if you consider it a map, the most important map in history,” according to Jerry Brotton, a professor at the University of London, who has raised raised important questions about how far Google and Apple can and should go in mapping their users. “The problem is,” Brotton continues, “that that’s obviously being tied to commerce… So for the for the first time we have a map that’s basically being used to sell us stuff” [1]. Brotton’s forthcoming book, A History of the World in Twelve Maps (Allen Lane 2012), has sparked related discussions in many news outlets on the future of maps and privacy [2].

Google changed maps forever with the unveiling of Google Earth in 2005, which turned the satellite imagery it purchased from Keyhole, Inc. into a usable and searchable interface. The service has since turned into a major stream of advertising revenue for the tech giant, since all Google searches and map queries are now geo-targeted for a precise tailoring of advertisements. Now, Apple has announced that it will also enter the maps fray; its next generation iOS 6 software will ditch Google maps for its own Maps app, which features smooth vector-based graphics and flyover views [3]. But the tech world can see through Apple’s claim that their switch from Google maps is simply to improve user experience. As it ramps up an ongoing war with Google over the latter’s iOS competitor, Android, Apple also wants your data. Oliver Burkeman writes in The Guardian:

In a world of GPS-enabled smartphones, you’re not just consulting Google or Apple data stores when you consult a map: you’re adding to them.

Exactly what information the companies collect, and what they do with it, remains much debated. But it’s easy to grasp the basic commercial calculation. The more exactly your phone knows where you are, the more accurately you can be served with advertisements based on the places you’ll be passing. (Ads on Google are already geo-targeted.) There’s no technical reason why, perhaps in return for a cheaper phone bill, you mightn’t consent to be shown not the quickest route between two points, but the quickest route that passes at least one Starbucks. If you’re looking at the world through Google glasses, who determines which aspects of “augmented reality” data you see – and did they pay for the privilege? Combining GPS with the new Indoor Positioning System, which uses cellular and other phone data to track phones much more precisely, shops could easily track customers’ movements among the aisles, adjusting displays on a day-by-day basis for maximum revenue.

“The map is mapping us,” says Martin Dodge, a senior lecturer in human geography at Manchester University. “I’m not paranoid, but I am quite suspicious and cynical about products that appear to be innocent and neutral, but that are actually vacuuming up all kinds of behavioural and attitudinal data.” [4]

Google has been criticized from the beginning about its mapping technologies being invasive, and those criticisms are only intensifying as Google’s maps become more and more accurate. Of particular attention is Google’s use of “military-grade spy planes” in its next generation of 3D mapping technologies, which has one U.S. Senator up in arms about Americans’ right to backyard privacy and the potential for Google’s detailed maps to be used by terrorists [5]. It is in this vein that Brotton raises another important question: what if Google was able to make a one-to-one scale map of the entire globe? Would it be the end of maps?

The idea of a one-to-one scale map of the world, portraying everything in it, is a venerable device in literature, surfacing most famously in the work of Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges; in Harry Potter, there’s a map that shows what everyone in Hogwarts is doing at every moment. But in the era of Street View Trekker and Liquid Galaxy, these fictional maps seem somewhat less absurd – and the level of detail is only one way in which maps are changing. Increasingly, the boundary between consulting a map and interacting with the world outside it is blurring: when Google glasses, currently in prototype, can project directions, or reviews of the restaurant you’re looking at, directly into your visual field, what does the word “map” mean anymore? While researching his forthcoming book, A History of the World in Twelve Maps, Brotton sometimes brought up the “one-to-one map” idea, from Borges and Carroll, with people at Google, but they didn’t find it particularly witty or intriguing.

“Oh, yeah,” they would reply, matter-of-factly. “We can make that map.”

Google’s seemingly limitless technology is impressive, but also concerning. “There’s kind of a fine line that you run,” says Ed Parsons, Google’s chief geospatial technologist, in a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, “between this being really useful, and it being creepy” [3]. Technologies like Google maps have become a technology staple in the daily lives of millions of people, but with the lure of revenue from selling information to advertisers guiding Google and Apple’s mapmaking, perhaps there’s a point when privacy takes priority over convenience.

A History of the World in Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton is available for purchase on Amazon beginning September 6, 2012.


[1] “Maps ‘are now used to sell stuff’, says author Jerry Brotton,” BBC

[2] Jeremy Brotton. A History of the World in Twelve Maps. Allen Lane, 2012.

[3] Apple iOS 6 Maps

[4] “How Google and Apple’s digital mapping is mapping us,” Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian

[5] “Apple, Google using ‘military-grade spy planes’ to make new maps, says senator,” Ars Technica

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