If you’ve ever wondered how accurate Google Maps traffic information is, wonder no more. It may simply change the very nature of national – and international – military conflicts. In fact, the Maps information is so timely that knowledgeable observers spotted Russian troop movements into Ukraine hours before the first official announcement about the conflict made the news.
A California-based professor of international studies used traffic data around Belgorod, Russia, to alert his team that the Russian military was on the move, reports The Washington Post. Professor Jeffrey Lewis studies arms control at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and mentored a group of students in the analysis of images captured by Earth-facing satellites. On February 23, the Post reports that he was monitoring Google Maps around 3:15 a.m. Moscow standard time when he noticed something that didn’t make much sense at that time: a traffic jam.
Together with his students, Lewis combined information from Maps with radar imagery and realized the invasion was on. He told the Post that while the public once relied on news correspondents on the ground, today you can just check Google Maps and see people streaming out of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. It’s also a classic example of how technology draws people from all over the world into real-time events.
Google Maps and competing apps reveal information based on cell phone data tracking. But every year the maps get more sophisticated, adding more useful bells and whistles like emergency weather and active shooter alerts. Each new feature helps researchers like Lewis show us how easy it can be to learn about events on the other side of the world almost immediately.
Unfortunately, knowing that average people with access to publicly available tools could easily investigate things like troop movements could lead to many future internet or cell service outages in conflict-prone regions, according to a researcher. national security expert contacted by the Post. In addition to informing the public, there could be a danger, however, it is unclear how far people like Lewis can go.
The military also tends to learn from their mistakes and prepare solutions quickly. The next time someone notices disturbing activity in a war zone on Google Maps, it might just be a form of digital camouflage to distract unwanted attention from what’s really happens in the field.
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