Google Maps is turning 15. How has it dominated the way we navigate?

Privacy news
2 mins
Google drop pin with a party hat and a balloon with 15 on it.

Do you remember the last time you looked at  a printed map? If you drive, then maybe you have an outdated Road Atlas collecting dust in the back of your car, or maybe you have a collection of tourist maps from when you visited other countries. Most of the time, however, we’re willing to bet that you’re using Google Maps to get around.

Since its launch on Feb 8, 2005, using Google Maps has quickly become second nature to anyone who has a smart device—90% of Americans now use a smartphone for directions and recommendations alone.

Fifteen years later, the free map app provides a staggering wealth of information about the places you’re looking at. If you’re looking for a restaurant nearby, you can see not just where it is, but also what it looks like from the street, its ratings and reviews, opening hours, peak hours and waiting time, and of course, the directions to get there.

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While it’s certainly made life more convenient to navigate around roads and cities, our dependency on Google Maps is troubling, given that it collects everything you give it, from simple searches to real-time location data whenever the app is open.

What does Google Maps collect?

Like a lot of Google’s products and services, Google Maps collects and stores significant personal information, and tracks your whereabouts.

Google is upfront about this, and gives you the option to manage your location history or pause location data collection (although other Google apps can still track you). You can also use the app in incognito mode, which will not save your location history, but won’t anonymize your data completely either.

Location data collection for any map app may be an inevitability if you want to use it for directions, but Google’s data storage is unparalleled when it comes to your personal information. We already know Google has a not-so-stellar track record when it comes to consumer privacy, like violating your privacy with StreetViewtracking your purchases via Gmail, and its voice assistants always listening to you.

Google Maps dominates—for now

Perhaps because of its data collecting abilities, you’d be hard-pressed to find an app that provides all the functions that Google Maps does. Sure, Apple has a native map app, and third-party apps like CityMapper come close to helping you with directions, but Google Maps still remains the default choice for mobile and web users.

That could change though. Recently, the EU forced Google to allow Android users to choose a default search engine other than Google, like the more privacy-oriented DuckDuckGo. If a similar approach can be taken towards other Google apps on Android, like Google Maps, then maybe other map apps could be made available. Apple users are slightly less bound to using it, but Google Maps is still #1 under Navigation on the App Store.

But it is hard to unGoogle your life. Google wants you to use its products and services for everything you do online, and it makes it incredibly easy for you to do so. The Maps app is just one of the ways it does that.

You’re probably not ever going to be able to delete absolutely everything Google knows about you. But you can make a start here.

Ceinwen focused on digital privacy, censorship, and surveillance, and has interviewed leading figures in tech.