Using Google Maps costs more than you think.

by | Dec 17, 2018

11 minute read

Your creepy stalker ex-boyfriend knows you just left the gym. I’m sure he’s over you.

Google Maps is free, isn’t it?

It seems like a question with an obvious answer, doesn’t it? Of course, Google Maps is free. I’ve never been asked to enter my credit card to look up a new address. There is no subscription plan. There is no paywall.

But just because you are not exchanging money to use Google Maps does not mean you are not exchanging value. I intend to show you just how much. You might not like it.

We’ll use Google Maps to help us walk through a basic use case and better understand the value exchange, but there are plenty of other examples. Let’s begin.

  1. You’re traveling from Minneapolis to Omaha (a long drive, by the way). By the time you arrive, you’re like to want something to eat. You open the Google Maps app, search for “Omaha, Nebraska,” and then search for “nearby restaurants.”
  2. If you haven’t given the Google Maps app on your phone the permission to use your location information, it will ask you for that. It’s obvious, isn’t it? But think about that for a moment. Google Maps doesn’t need to know where you are to show you restaurants in Omaha. There are no “terms and conditions” to read. There is only an “accept” button. You click it.
  3. Google Maps shows you a list of restaurants, reviews, and distances. Remember, you gave it permission to know where you are right now. That’s cool, huh? Assuming you find a restaurant you like, Google Maps can give you turn-by-turn driving directions with live traffic updates … and with connections to some other apps, and based on your estimated arrival time, even put your name on the waitlist for a table so that you can walk right in.

Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

For many of us, this use case is so routine that it’s almost unremarkable. But for anyone used to car trips with the family as a kid in the 1980s (and the inevitable and horrifying gas station restaurant food), Google Maps delivers something close to magic.

The experience is so magical that we often don’t think beyond that simple interaction.

Let’s do that, shall we?


Here’s the part of the value exchange that you might not see.

  1. What restaurants did Google Maps show you? Unless you searched for a specific restaurant, you likely saw only those restaurants that paid for contextual advertising on that search. (At the very least, you saw the paid listing first, and on a small mobile screen, you may not have scrolled past them.) No, a human being didn’t decide to show you one restaurant versus another. An advertising algorithm did. Someone at a “top result” restaurant decided they wanted to appear when you typed in the “restaurants in Omaha” search.
  2. To run that advertising algorithm, Google needed to aggregate historical user data so that the restaurant would know how much to pay to advertise against those searches. The advertiser does not see your data when you run your search (nor will they at any time), but Google uses that data to judge demand for any specific search. That’s how Google makes a vast majority of its revenue: Advertising. By using Google Maps, you are improving that advertising engine with both your individual and aggregate data.
  3. In a similar way, Google uses your data to plot driving/transit/footpath options to your destination. At the aggregate level, Google uses that data to generate live traffic reports. No Google Helicopter is flying over Omaha as traffic reporters did in the 1980s. Their solution is more complicated, but it’s quite a bit safer and more effective: If Google notices a lot of users on the highway, and also notices that they are all moving slowly, it adjusts its time arrival estimates.
  4. All Google products and services interconnect. That’s why you’ll see Google Reviews for those restaurants. (Actually, Google sometimes gets in anti-trust trouble for not showing you competitors’ rating systems.) Most people aren’t going to stop searching for a restaurant to submit a public comment to a regulator complaining that they’re not receiving Yelp reviews alongside the Google Reviews. People are busy. It’s understandable. But part of the value you’ve just exchanged is the ability for Google to lockout an alternative service and keep that revenue for itself.

Okay, so you’ve exchanged more value than you thought for the use of Google Maps, but there’s still no money out of pocket for you. You’re still winning, right?

Most of you might agree that more contextual advertising is better advertising. Additionally, you might understand why Google needs to collect individualized data so that it can aggregate it and deliver useful services back to you. What’s more, someone needs to pay for all this, and you’re glad it’s not you. Advertising, especially if it’s good advertising, is a pretty small price to pay. And the anti-competitive concerns? They’re a bit beyond your pay grade. Other people will take care of that stuff. You’re hungry. And Google Maps solved your problem.

At this point, I can’t disagree. The logic holds up. But how about we take just one more step? After we’re done, I want you to ask yourself if you’re still comfortable using Google Maps.


There’s a bigger market for “you are here” than you thought.

Here’s the first thing to understand about most location apps: Once you give them permission to track your location, they’ve got it until you turn it off. That means when you clicked “Accept” that one time, most apps have the authority (and ability) to collect information about you while you go about other activities. That one app may have shared location data with other apps … again, all with your “permission.”

So. What happens next?

If you’re like most people (me included, until recently) the answer was I don’t know.

Last week, the New York Times answered that question. They certainly weren’t the first, but they have the largest reach, and their journalists know how to tell a good story. You can read the full article for yourself, but let me quote directly the crux of their findings:

At least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from apps whose users enable location services to get local news and weather or other information, The Times found. Several of those businesses claim to track up to 200 million mobile devices in the United States — about half those in use last year. The database reviewed by The Times — a sample of information gathered in 2017 and held by one company — reveals people’s travels in startling detail, accurate to within a few yards, and in some cases updated more than 14,000 times a day.

These companies sell, use or analyze the data to cater to advertisers, retail outlets, and even hedge funds seeking insights into consumer behavior. It’s a hot market, with sales of location-targeted advertising reaching an estimated $21 billion this year. IBM has gotten into the industry, with its purchase of the Weather Channel’s apps. The social network Foursquare remade itself as a location marketing company. Prominent investors in location start-ups include Goldman Sachs and Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder.

Unlike sometimes-justified / sometimes-not criticism of the New York Times, I don’t see a “big business conspiracy” around every corner. Most business people are people too – they’re your colleagues, siblings, parents, and friends. They’re also customers and users of these products. Most businesses simply are trying to earn an honest profit by providing a reasonable service in an increasingly competitive world.

But the fact remains: now that these apps have your permission (and there are a lot of apps that do this), and they have the location data your phone generates, they create something of value. That value creation is like crack cocaine to the average marketing VP, chief executive, or controller. In many ways, location data is some of the best data to have because it is not based on your opinion (likes, shares, comments) but rather it’s based on your behavior. As our grandparents taught us: Actions speak louder than words.

And wow are we ever speaking with our actions. You may wonder if you are “interesting enough” to warrant deeper interest from Google (I did). But when you consider the vast array of potentially interested parties, you can see how you just became the most interesting person in the world. Let’s look at just a few of the reasons other parties are interested in your location data:

  • Retailers (and investors in retail operations) are interested in actual foot traffic, not “estimates” of foot traffic. By merging mobile phone data with real-time foot traffic, retailers know the quality of potential customers as well as the quantity of them.
  • Employers love location data. It helps them reconfigure building layouts to optimize the placement of both individuals and teams. On the darker side, it also allows employers to know how often you use the restroom, if you and a colleague are having, ahem, a relationship, or how long you spend tethered to your desk.
  • The days of ambulance-chasing lawyers are long gone. With location data, they can send ads to any mobile phone in the emergency room of your local hospital.
  • Law enforcement is a special case. They can subpoena your mobile phone records for a variety of legal reasons, but usually with probable cause. But with the technology available to advertisers and others, law enforcement can watch known high-crime areas and merge that data with publicly-available mobile phone data – data that you freely provide.

That’s just a few. I could go on.

I’ll bet even with those few examples, you are getting a sense of the broader market for “you are here” than you ever thought possible. Yes, you’re getting a “free” service, but you’re also trading away more than you bargained for.

Even at this point, I can see an argument that goes like this: Well, this is aggregated data, right? If it’s aggregated with millions of other people (or at least dozens of others), picking me out of a crowd is difficult. I can still blend in, right?


Russian hackers, Nigerian princes, and your stalker ex-boyfriend can pick you out of the crowd.

Read this and let it sink in: You are not anonymous.

Just because Google’s data center is secure, and its partners are bound by its terms of service, does not mean either it or its partners are invulnerable to a coordinated hacking attempt. As you may recall, it wasn’t Target Corporation’s IT department that caused its massive 2013 data breach, it was a third-party contractor with lax controls.

Just because you’re a United States citizen doesn’t mean the rules are the same in other countries. Frequent visitors to Russia are “pretty sure” they’re being tracked. Frequent visitors to China are “absolutely sure” they’re being tracked. And once those governments have your unique device identifier, they can identify you when you return home.

Just because Google (or Facebook, or whomever) has a “policy” about data privacy doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Silicon Valley’s spinning moral compass doesn’t give me a warm fuzzy. Google might be in the public eye, but what about that concert app you downloaded? Did you read their policy? Probably not. Do you think that a comparatively tiny company cares as much as Google about privacy? Probably not. Do you think they have the resources Google does to protect your data? Probably not. Put even more simply: Policies are policies, not laws.

Here’s the most important part: just because one source of data is aggregated, doesn’t mean there aren’t individual data in the public record. This is the real beauty of the New York Times reporting. With a few simple steps, their journalists and technicians – with no supercomputing power or complex artificial intelligence – could link up aggregated user behaviors to public databases (housing, political donations, etc.) and reverse engineer individual people from the aggregated data.

Well, fuck.


Let’s ask ourselves some tough questions about location services, shall we?

  1. Is using location services worth the invasion of your privacy?
  2. Is using location services worth you getting fired from your job?
  3. Is using location services worth getting your private relationship details exposed?
  4. Is using location services worth getting financial data stolen?
  5. Is using location services worth being stalked?
  6. Is using location services worth your children being followed to school?

I wish this was simply hyperbole or an academic exercise. I wish I could believe tech CEOs when they tell us that “everybody wins” when we all use these location-based services. I, for one, am tired of “winning” like that.

I wonder what happens when consumers start to think that they’re paying too much for “free” services. I wonder what happens to tech company valuations. I wonder what happens when consumers start opting out.


If you’re not ready to “opt-out” just yet, here are a few things you can do to protect yourself:

  • Learn how to turn off location services. Here is how you do it on Apple and Android
  • Clean up unused apps on your phone. If you haven’t turned on an app in a year, delete it and all its data. That won’t prevent it from using data it has already collected, but it will prevent you from providing more. And more apps than you think to collect location data.
  • Buy a “Prince box” for your phone. What’s a “Prince box,” you say? When I visited Paisley Park (the home and studio of the late artist), I could take my phone…but I needed to carry it around in a locked, RFID-proof case. You can buy one too. Here’s an option.
  • If all else fails, turn your phone off when you don’t want to be monitored. Don’t simply put it to sleep.
  • Start signing up for services that allow you to monetize your data. These services are not ready for prime time for the most part, but they all you to take some control over your data, and more importantly, begin to train consumers that their data is an asset to be monetized. I like this one.


Worried about your customers getting wise to you? Here are some things you can do as a business to respect your consumer’s rights:

Finding a tech workaround isn’t the answer. It will simply erode trust and postpone the day of reckoning. Forward-thinking companies (Apple, for one) are already deploying these techniques to stay on the right side of all of us:

  • Be transparent. Tell people why you are seeing an advertisement, why you need to give your location, and for how long you need it. Instead of leaving location services on, turn off tracking automatically when you’re done with that explicit need.
  • Allow people to rate the quality of what they’re seeing and the service you provide in real-time. You’ll have better data on your service that you can use to improve it.
  • Give people the option to pay you for your service easily and securely. YouTube Red (aka YouTube Premium) does this to allow consumers to opt-out of ads. (Despite that, they still track you, so I call it a half-right idea. I’d pay for YouTube Platinum for them to avoid tracking me altogether.)
  • Destroy identifying individualized data as it is created. If you never have it, you’re never tempted to abuse it, and it can never fall into the wrong hands (either a hacker or an acquirer).
  • Default to an “opt-in” versus “opt-out” philosophy. It’s better for you anyway; you’ll know that your customers are truly interested in your service. (Bluntly, I wish this worked better than it does. Email (CANSPAM) and National Do Not Call do this already, although they haven’t reduced my inbox spam nor have they reduced junk calls to my mobile phone.)
  • Use your clout to lobby for GDPR-style legislation in the United States. It’s not perfect, but it has a place, and it’s going in the right direction.

Consumers are getting angry. They may not be able to put their finger on it, but consumer advocates, journalists at the New York Times, and writers and researchers like me are ripping back the curtain and directing consumer rage where it belongs.

If you’re a smart consumer, you’ll protect yourself and take action. It is only a matter of time before the abuse of location services puts your life and livelihood at risk.

If you’re a smart organization, you’ll get in front of this. Because in the not-too-distant future, “treating people as you would like to be treated” might be your most important product.

Source notes for this article:


How The Times Analyzed Location Tracking Companies

Want to know how the New York Times crunched the data to pull out individual people among aggregated data? This article walks you through the process. It’s transparent, and more than a little creepy.


Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They’re Not Keeping It Secret

This is the article itself. Again, it’s not the first, but it’s the best one of all I reviewed. It’s worth the 20-30 minutes it will take you to carefully read it.


Finally, I think it’s only fair to provide you with direct links to Google’s policies and safety tips. Here are a couple of good starting points:

I picked on Google, but at least they are open about it. Additionally, they are highly visible. There are plenty of people (like me) who will pounce if they make a change. But the thousands of lesser-known apps from no-name developers? Good luck.