Google Maps an Example of Tech That Helps, But at a Cost to Privacy

Google Maps makes a lot of things convenient, but at what cost to your privacy.
Google Maps makes a lot of things convenient, but at what cost to your privacy. Screenshot
The news is filled every day with stories about privacy breaches and concerns of sharing of personal data. Most of these stories center on outside forces plotting to steal our information and feed us fake news to influence our views on politics or shopping habits. But, here's the thing no one talks about: Most of us give away our information willingly every single day.

Sure, there are the products we buy on Amazon, the questions we ask Siri or Alexa and the searches on Google (often while signed into our Gmail accounts). Then there are the myriad number of posts we make to social media sites from selfies on Instagram to political posts on Twitter to location check-ins on Facebook. We share tons of our lives with people every single day, happily and without question.

Think for a moment, however, about that seems almost innocuous, Google Maps. We use it for almost everything. We click on them from websites sharing their locations. We use them to give us directions. We can plan trips and locate things we need nearby. We check traffic, many of us daily. Google Maps, more than any other mapping technology, has become the go-to app for people who have to drive...or bike...or walk...or ride public transit. It is that comprehensive.

The question becomes: Do we all understand just exactly what that means for our privacy?

If you aren't sure, here are a few things Google collects from you when you use their maps:

Location data for where you are and where you go.
Time it takes you to get from one place to another to improve their traffic apps.
Where you visit, particularly businesses, so it can recommend others to you.

One example of a benefit of this is storing a regular trip you might make, say to work. When your phone connects with your vehicle at 7 a.m. on a Tuesday, Google pulls up a route to work that helps you avoid traffic knowing that is where you normally go at that time on that day of the week. It would be creepy if it weren't so damn helpful.

And if you are logged into Google as a user, it will even store that information so you can look back at it later. If you do this, you can log into Google here and find yours.

Our guess is, even after finding out everything Google grabs from you, most people are happy to oblige considering the trade off. Cell phones leave us vulnerable to tracking, but are we willing to abandon them entirely to protect our privacy? Astronomical global sales of smart phones say otherwise.

But there are some, particularly the already paranoid out there, for whom this must seem like the very invasions they have imagined while hiding away in their bunkers every time there is a report of a North Korean missile test. We may resign them to the world of tin foil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists, but are they necessarily wrong to be worried?

We spend loads of time hand wringing over data that might be stolen, but we rarely stop to think about the information we give away. Google Maps is but one of dozens of pieces of technology we use on a daily basis that can, is or will be tracked by a company or some kind of outside entity. From your home security system to you car's smart technology to your fitness tracker. They all gather information that defines who you are.

This can be a wonderful thing, making our lives easier and more convenient. It can also be a tool used against us. No one should go "off the grid," but being aware of just what you are giving up might make you rethink the next time you decide to record the food you eat into a diet app or check the weather radar from your house. You never know who will get that info and how they will use it later.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke