Google Maps has disabled live traffic data in Ukraine as another example of how access to technology and social networks have become a key battleground in Russia's invasion of the country.
Google confirmed the decision to Reuters, claiming they took the move to protect the safety of local communities after consulting with regional authorities in Ukraine. Map navigation features are still working as per normal in the area, so users should still be able to use the app to find a location, but Google is blocking live information that shows how busy roads, restaurants, shops, and other venues are at a current time.
This may seem like a minor move, but it’s been shown that this information could be used to track the presence of armies or civilians in a warzone.
Dr Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, tweeted an image showing how Google Maps flagged up a “traffic jam” near the Russia-Ukraine border on the morning of the invasion at 3:15 am — not a time of the day typically associated with traffic jams in usual circumstances. He suspects this traffic jam alert was produced by location data gathered from the smartphones of civilians attempting to flee the conflict.
“The traffic data is most likely NOT from soldiers carrying smartphones. Instead, civilians are probably getting stuck at roadblocks and @googlemaps is recording that,” Dr Lewis confirmed.
“I would imagine this is the end of our ability to track movement using @googlemaps, as I don't think many civilians are going to be trying to access these roads. We may see traffic jams, however, if people try to flee advancing Russian units,” he added.
There's no evidence yet that any side has employed this strategy, but it was certainly a possibility.
Controlling access to other apps, media, and social networks has become a common theme in the ongoing conflict. To push back against the spread of disinformation, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok have all taken steps to block or restrict state-sponsored Russian media outlets across Europe, much to the annoyance of Moscow who has accused big tech companies of “censorship.”
On the other hand, it appears that Russia has attempted to restrict access to Twitter in a bid to stifle the flow of information coming out of the country. Steve Rosenberg, Moscow Correspondent for BBC News, says that Twitter is being "severely restricted," claiming his tweet took an unusually long time to post.
Twitter has acknowledged the problem and said it's busy working to ensure their service remains safe and accessible to maintain the free flow of vital information coming out of both Ukraine and Russia at this troubling time.