Have you ever wanted to see a map of everywhere you’ve been? Ever wanted to remember a place you visited, or link photos to the places they were taken? Google recently unveiled Timeline, a feature that records and lists everywhere your Google Account has logged into the system. Accounts linked to cellular phones, laptops, and other mobile devices will create tracks of their travels, displayed on Google Maps by date. Google Timeline is an Orwellian fever-dream of personal tracking that also promises many uses to improve efficiency or record memories. The feature is interesting and holds great potential for business and efficiency uses, however it is a little scary to see just how much personal data is being tracked by Google. Although most of us already know that our online habits are tracked through cookies and account loggers, adding the visual mapping that shows where you go in physical space is a little unsettling. Of course Google lets users turn off the tracking, but I would suggest all this does is turn off the ability for the user to see their data, while it is still passively recorded by the great data monster that is Google.You can read more about it here.
Here are a few recent maps showing my movements to better illustrate what Timeline is recording.
To begin, here is the basic overview screen, showing my most recent travels. The two tracks being displayed are built from points where the Google account associated with my Android cell phone logged into the system. These points are used to build a track of movement, and the system’s algorithms are good enough to determine when points are part of a larger pattern of movement. Pretty impressive. I recently traveled to attend weddings for friends. In May I drove from WA to MI, then in July from WA to NV. Google Timeline displays this movement as “trips” (note the ‘Trip to Nevada’ on the bottom bar). I didn’t tell Timeline that these were part of a single road trip. The program built these tracks based on the time each point was recorded.
Let’s look closer. Here are the daily tracks for my recent trip to Reno, NV to attend a wedding. I started out much later than I wanted to, and was stuck in Seattle-Tacoma traffic. I opted to stop for the night in Roseburg, OR (although the bottom of the map didn’t fit on the screen). Google begins the track by listing the destination at the very top: Arrived in Roseburg Wednesday, July 15, 2015. How did Google determine Roseburg was the day’s destination, since I arrived after midnight? Look at the time spent at each point. I was stopped in Roseburg for 7 hours and 17 minutes, at the Sleep Inn and Suites (3:02AM-10:19AM). Even though this was on July 16, it was a logical point where a person would stop to sleep because it’s a hotel, and the greatest amount of time in a single location for that day.
So far it all looks useful, right? Well this sort of tracking gets a little troublesome when you consider that it is easily paired with other electronic tracking to build a very accurate description of your activities and connections. Consider this: Google knows my home address, and lists that I was at home on July 15 for 12 hours and 52 minutes. Google knows I arrived home from work at 3:18AM that morning, and stayed until 4:10PM. So now not only does Google know when I travel for special occasions, but it knows when I work, when I can be expected to come home, and when I leave for work again each day, given sufficient data points to build a pattern. Take a look at the day of the wedding in Reno:
Looking at this data, Google can see I was at a casino in the early morning, ending 2 hours and 9 minutes of drinking or gambling at the Eldorado Casino at 1:04AM before walking back to the Silver Legacy Casino at 1:05AM. This must be where I was staying, as I was there for 12 hours and 19 minutes. I could be a compulsive gambler, but considering the rest of the data points for the day, it’s likely that the first casino was entertainment and the second was lodging. Also interesting to note is that the entire wedding took 6 hours and 14 minutes to resolve, at the Hidden Valley Country Club. Of course the night was rounded out with burgers at In-N-Out before retiring to the Silver Legacy Casino where I must have slept during the 11 hours and 41 minutes.
It gets more interesting when considering a few entries on my MI road trip. I use Virgin Mobile, a cheap cut-rate carrier that piggy-backs off Sprint’s network. During the drive to MI I discovered that Virgin Mobile does not do roaming. As in, it’s not even an option, they simple don’t allow roaming. I discovered this fact shortly before Missoula, MT when my phone cut out, and was unusable until Sioux City, SD a couple days later. This was very problematic as it also cut off my phone’s GPS which I was using to navigate. Well Google’s data tracking doesn’t let a little thing like no cell service stop data collection. Here’s the track for the days I was out of coverage.
Every point where I passed a wifi signal long enough to establish connection allowed Google to upload location data. Broadus, MT for example, is a tiny little passthrough town where I spent a few hours in a dirt motel. But the motel had wifi, and my cellphone logged that connection, even though I couldn’t call anyone. Also interesting is the Hammond, MT post office– Hammond, MT is basically a modern ghost town with a single modern post office serving the scattered farms. The “town” of Hammond is pretty much that one post office. I stopped across the street from the post office for 10 minutes to take photos of the abandoned buildings that used to be Hammond, and even here Google tracked me. Also interesting to note that Google recorded both Minuteman Missile sites in SD, including the main exhibit hall and the silo itself, sitting alone in the middle of a barren field. Still not sure how it tracked that point without coverage.
Okay, so enough Big Brother-style spying. There are useful aspects for Timeline, such as determining efficiency, gas mileage and use, and frequency of visits to specific locations. For example, I currently drive taxi in rural areas between several small towns. My routes between the cities all travel over railroad tracks which are quite heavily used and often impact my travel. Using Timeline, I can track where I’m driving, to which points and how I get between them. I get a visual representation of the night’s work which can be used to determine places to wait, advertise, or places where maybe I should focus more attention. I can also view routes used versus planned or current construction or find alternate routes around the trains. Below is an example of my night at work, for July 4th.