Why Waze Is a Little Scary
Several of us at Full Metal Autos use Waze, the popular crowd-sourced navigation and traffic app for smartphones. While with Autosavant, my colleagues were among the first to talk about Waze, way back in March 2012. A few months ago, there were rumors that Apple might be buying Waze to improve its lousy Apple Maps application. Then it was Facebook supposedly buying Waze, and now it appears that Google has finally snagged the Israel-based company for a cool $1.0 to $1.3 billion. With Waze going to Google – a company that succeeds, as does Facebook, by convincing you to trust it with your private data so that it can tailor ads to your and your friends – I thought we might look at some of the more interesting privacy-related aspects of Waze in its current form.
Once Waze is officially in the Google fold, it will likely – thankfully – remain a standalone app, rather than being integrated into Google Maps. I love both apps, and use them for different things. I’m a very competitive person, so one aspect of Waze that I love is that you get points for driving while Waze is turned on, and extra points for reporting police, traffic, accidents, road hazards, and so forth. As I write this, I have the 243rd most points of all Wazers in Pennsylvania (148,178 points), which is in the top 1% in my state. What can I say? I drive a lot and have Waze open for all but the shortest trips.
Like most people, I do not take the time to review the terms and conditions of new software or a new app. Even if I did have the time to do so (and I don’t), my attention span is not long enough to allow me to actually read something that long and boring. Long and interesting – sure. Short and boring – ok. Long and boring – no go.
So imagine my surprise when I logged onto the Waze website the other night (www.waze.com, naturally) and saw text that said, “View your recent routes in the map editor.” I clicked on the link and saw a list of every single trip – date, time, and number of miles – that I have ever taken while using the Waze app. Now, the older ones (which begin on March 16, 2012) do not offer the ability to click on the listing to see a map of exactly where I drove, but the newer ones certainly do. It appears that my route data is stored for the past 90 days; I’m not sure if this is the deletion period for Waze (most likely the case; that would be a lot of GPS points to store) or if Waze only began keeping this kind of data in March 2013 (I suspect that is not the case).
Supposedly, the only person who can see your entire route history is you – map editors and Waze employees can see anonymized data points, but Waze automatically hides the first/last 500 meters (roughly 1/4 mile) of a route to improve privacy. Said one Waze representative in a Waze support post asking about the possibilty of deleting this data:
GPS points are already visible today up to a month at most, after which they are archived and not visible in the editor and…the first/last 500 meters of travel are not visible to Wazers other than the respective owner.
Reason we do keep historical information is for extracting additional data when we improve our algorithms, whereas then we rerun the process on the data accumulated and the more data exist per segment, the better the results are.
Regardless, a Waze user can be totally anonymous and not provide any details (only thing we collect for enabling forum communication and editing is email and that of course could be a special email designated just for that purpose) and it should be noted we do not collect phone number or device identity either.
His first point is not accurate. I was definitely able to see the map of my drive on March 16, 2013, which happened just under three months ago. You’ll also note that the GPS data is still not deleted after a month (or three months, which seems to be the actual situation) – it’s archived. In other words, they can get their hands on it again if they need it or want it.
By the way, you cannot delete this data manually – at least not yet. The same poster said shared the above information said that the “delete item” is on their agenda for development.
I’m hardly a tinfoil hat type. I do use GMail, after all, not to mention many, many other Google services. I use Facebook (all settings there are to “friends only”), LinkedIn, and write under my real name at Full Metal Autos. And, I use Waze. It’s great – and I want the points, damnit! But seeing literally almost every mile that I’ve driven over the past three months – not to mention a listing of nearly every trip I’ve taken over the past 15 months – is downright creepy. I’m not the only one who has expressed concern about this, either.
What if I piss somebody off at Anonymous and they guess my Waze password? They could post satellite photos of where I work and live. They could tell you what time I leave the house in the morning and could tell you what time I get home at night (also known as when to burglarize my house).
I’m not saying that you should stop using Waze. I’m going to keep using it, and the more people that use it (50 million worldwide users, according to the company), the more likely that I will have better data helping me avoid traffic and speed traps. If I have to sacrifice a little privacy in order to reap the benefits of avoiding traffic, it just might be worth it. Waze has remarkable accuracy in calculating your estimated arrival time based on road and traffic conditions; just today it routed me around an accident that easily saved me 20 extra minutes of frustrating bumper-to-bumper traffic.