Google Disables Maps Traffic Monitoring Feature in Ukraine
Google has long relied on the network pings from Android phones to power the robust traffic monitoring features of Maps, but this data is no longer available in Ukraine. Vice says that Google has disabled the feature following reports that Maps could reveal the movement of troops and civilians as Russian forces continue their assault on Ukraine.
In some places, like the US and Canada, the iPhone is more popular than Android. That’s not the case in Ukraine and Russia, where about three in four phones run Android. Any Android phone that has location services enabled will report back to the Google mothership, and the aggregate of that data helps to show traffic congestion in Maps. Green lines mean traffic is flowing freely, and yellow or red lines indicate places where it’s slowing.
Over the past few days, as Russia advances toward the capital Kyiv, several commentators have noted that late-night “traffic jams” on Google Maps most likely indicate large troop movements. For example, the road between Belgorod, Russia and the Ukrainian border lit up red on February 23 as Russia was staging its attack. The soldiers themselves are probably not carrying active smartphones, but anyplace civilians are delayed by troop movements will be interpreted by Google’s servers as a traffic jam.
According @googlemaps, there is a “traffic jam” at 3:15 in the morning on the road from Belgorod, Russia to the Ukrainian border. It starts *exactly* where we saw a Russian formation of armor and IFV/APCs show up yesterday.
Someone’s on the move. pic.twitter.com/BYyc5YZsWL
— Dr. Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) February 24, 2022
Google has not clarified when it disabled the feature, nor if there was some specific event that prompted the move. It may have even been asked by Ukraine or the US to disable the feature. The ability to track concentrations of civilians with an open access tool like Maps could be very advantageous to an invading army. This is of even greater concern as reports claim Russian forces have started shelling civilian areas in Kharkiv. Ukrainian authorities have started dismantling road signs in hopes of slowing Russian troop movements as well.
Google gets this same data from everyone using an Android phone, and Apple does the same with Apple Maps on the iPhone. However, with so many fewer iPhones in Ukraine, Google Maps is more likely to display useful data. If you don’t want to contribute this data to Google Maps, you can disable it in the system settings under the Location menu (on most phones). Turn the toggle off, and your location will not be reported to any Google service. Keep in mind, some apps won’t work correctly without location access.