Mistakes on Google Maps hit navigators - and demolition crews

By Karen Turner

Visitors to Mt Rushmore in South Dakota get sidetracked by a GPS fault that leads them to a retreat centre centre nearby.
Visitors to Mt Rushmore in South Dakota get sidetracked by a GPS fault that leads them to a retreat centre centre nearby.

A Google Maps error has been sending tourists seeking "Mt Rushmore, SD" to the wrong location for nearly five years now.

Storm Mountain Centre, a retreat centre located 20km from the real Mt Rushmore, has repeatedly asked Google Maps to update the Mt Rushmore address.

The centre has resorted to installing a large sign at the front of its driveway instructing travellers that their electronic devices are wrong about Mt Rushmore's location.

Despite this, guest services manager Ashley Wilsey told the Kansas City Star that she regularly encounters a near-constant flow of tourists mistakenly navigating to the centre.

Although Google Maps is fast becoming the ultimate authority on navigation, the program is proving vulnerable to mistakes and hackers with results that at times can be catastrophic.

One of the latest blunders involved a company accidentally bulldozing the wrong house due to faulty Google Maps directions. Google took responsibility for the error.

In 2010, Nicaragua blamed an accidental invasion of Costa Rica on incorrect Google Maps information.

These cases shed light on the software's susceptibility to errors and hacks. Google Maps is built on layers of information obtained from satellite images as well as photographs taken by Street View cars, which have driven and photographed more than 11 million km of roads.

Google also crowdsources location information through Map Maker, which allows users to directly update local addresses and details.

An unknown number of people are employed by the company to comb through these maps for inaccuracies.

But despite this multi-faceted system, location bugs and mistakes still happen. Trolls and pranksters have taken advantage of the crowdsourced feature by changing businesses to offensive names or by doodling on the map interface. One showed the mascot for Google's mobile operating system, Android, urinating on the Apple logo in an area of Pakistan.

More explicit hacks have also proved that Google Maps is easily accessible to outsiders. Cyber security consultant Bryan Seely revealed vulnerabilities when he hacked into Google Maps' business listings and changed the phone number for the San Francisco FBI office and Washington DC Secret Service.

In a Gizmodo article, Seely described a world of con artists who exploit the feature's vulnerabilities with ease by switching business listings and conning unsuspecting callers. He blames Google's less-than-stellar verification system.

Then there's the human error element, such as the case of American tourist Noel Santillan, who drove six hours in the wrong direction in Iceland through wintry conditions due to a small spelling error he entered into Google Maps.

Some researchers have suggested that GPS dependence is becoming more and more common, and are worried about unforeseen effects.

Are we collectively losing our learned sense of direction?

Research at McGill University compared the brains of GPS versus non-GPS users and found that non-GPS users had more grey matter and higher functionality in their hippocampuses than those who relied on their devices. The hippocampus is responsible for memory and spatial navigation, the latter of which uses visual cues to create a cognitive map that assists with directionality.

An earlier study showed that London taxi drivers had much larger hippocampuses than non-taxi drivers. There is also some correlation between those with a more developed hippocampus and lower chances of Alzheimer's.

Veronique Bohbot, a neuroscientist who worked on McGill's GPS study, suggested in an article on Phys.org that we limit our GPS use to new destinations only and attempt to build up our cognitive maps by navigating to frequently visited destinations on our own.

Given recent errors, our memories may wind up being more accurate than Google Maps itself.


- Bloomberg

- Washington Post

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