There was a fascinating article in Wired the other day by Brian Barrett about a German artist named Simon Weckert who “hacked” Google Maps in a very interesting way.
According to the article, during a May Day demonstration in Berlin, Weckert noticed that Google Maps showed a massive traffic jam on a street that had no cars on it. He got an idea. He borrowed 99 phones from friends and rental companies, put them in a little red wagon, and randomly strolled an empty street for most of a day.
To no one’s surprise, the stunt tricked Google Maps into believing that the empty street was experiencing a traffic jam.
To be clear, there are far more technologically sophisticated ways to trick Google Maps and Waze (and any other program that processes inbound data from consumer devices), but best practices hacking is not the point. Weckert’s approach is a super low tech, easy way to wreak havoc.
The more dependent and addicted we are to technology, the more vulnerable we are to simple attack vectors… and that can have serious consequences. Imagine a group of bad actors who wanted to prevent or delay people from getting to work on an important shopping day, or on an important end-of-quarter or end-of-year business day. Ten bad guys with backpacks full of phones running Google Maps or Waze (or both) walking the most important commuter routes and tricking the software into thinking that there are traffic jams and pile-ups in just enough places to change everyone’s normal daily commute routines.
You wouldn’t think that would have much of an impact, but the economics could be staggering. More importantly: what if that stunt prevented an EMS vehicle from getting to or from someone in need because their traffic mapping software was showing false data? The list of insane low-tech hacks gets long quickly.
There is also the slow transition from being in control to being controlled. I wrote about this in more depth in an essay entitled, “The Next Great Decoupling: AI Takes Control.” It seems that Mr. Weckert and I have had some similar thoughts.
When Mr. Weckert was asked about his motivation, Wired quotes him as saying, “What I’m really interested in generally is the connection between technology and society and the impact of technology, how it shapes us.” He cites philosopher Marshall McLuhan: We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us. “I have the feeling right now that technology is not adapting to us, it’s the other way around.”
Great art reflects the society from which it is derived. Well done, Mr. Weckert. You have given us all something important to think about.
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Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.