A little background information.
I just moved to Delhi from Chennai, and I’ve just re-started using Android smartphones heavily, because that’s what I do – I write about smartphones. I’d stopped using Android phones after my last device, a Moto X 2nd Generation, fell out of an unbuttoned pocket in my jacket and on to the road while I was riding a bike. You know how that ends. Since then, I had been using an iPhone 6s. While I still used Google Maps on iOS, I always missed the rather exhaustive details of Google Maps on an Android device. The extent of these details, however, as I found out today, can be a little disconcerting.
That brings us to today. So since my has bike landed here in Delhi, I decided to ride to work today. So I got in the saddle, rode all the way up to office, and got a few comments on how colourful my helmet is, and that’s all. That’s all the offline interaction I had about riding to work today.
On the online front, however, there were two or three apps that could know that I rode a motorcycle to work – first, WhatsApp and iMessage, because I pinged my girlfriend telling her excitedly that I rode to work today, after a very long time. The other app that could have known that I was riding to work today, was Twitter, because I tweeted something about riding in Delhi and hence replenishing my vocabulary of expletives.
Not something to raise a huge hue and cry about, right? That’s what even I thought until I opened the Google Maps app to check something out. As I was going through the app, I tapped on something called “Your Timeline,” something that I hadn’t bothered about up until now. The feature asked me if I was in Sarita Vihar, New Delhi, at 9.30 am. I tapped on Yes, because that’s where I start from. Next, it asked me if I was at my work address at 10.03 am, and again I tapped on Yes, because that’s when I’d reached.
Next, it showed me the route that I’d taken for work. Even though I hadn’t searched for traffic or route on Google Maps today, it showed me the exact route I had taken. That is quite normal, because Google gives you suggestions based on the places you usually visit, and the Google Now cards also work on the same principle – collecting a lot of your data and tracking your movements.
The stunning part, however, and the reason why I’m writing all this, is that Google told me that I was motorcycling to work. It didn’t show me that I was simply moving, or driving. It correctly showed me that I was motorcycling.
And that makes me wonder, how much does Google actually know about me? Yes, we’ve often joked about how Facebook and Google know every tiny detail about us, but this needs a little reality check. How on Earth could Google know that I was on a motorcycle and not in a car?
How does Google know?
Let’s rule out calculation through moving speed first – yes, it’s easy to differentiate between driving and walking, obviously, but how do you differentiate between driving a car or riding a motorcycle if you’re going by the same route, doing the same speeds? I checked the same feature on my colleagues’ phones, and for everyone else it vaguely said moving. For some, it said driving, and the one guy who cycles to work, accurately got cycling as his mode of transport (again, it’s easy to differentiate between cycling and driving and walking).
Let’s look at the possibilities – Google is reading my WhatsApp and iMessages. I’d pinged two people from my phone, saying that I rode to work today, and that was using my iPhone – one on WhatsApp and one on iMessage.
Google, obviously, is reading my conversations on Hangouts. I was talking to a friend on Hangouts, joking about inhaling the glorious air of Delhi, and there was just one line, just one, that could have meant that I was on a motorcycle. It said, “I rode to work today”. I could have taken a ride in Uber. I could have ridden a horse. I could have ridden a hoverboard. I could have ridden the Pegasus, and Google shouldn’t have known.
The second possibility, and probably the most feasible one, is that Google is collecting data from even the sensors on my phone – if accelerometer data is being sent to Google from my devices, it would have given a clear clue that I was on a motorbike, because the vibration levels on a motorcycle and the body movements are very different on a bike than in a car. Also, the acceleration and braking patterns are much different.
The third possibility, albeit there’s no way to confirm this (because of the information that came to light that Google is recording audio from your device). Now most of the articles online tell us that Google keeps audio recordings of our voice searches. But are the devices’ microphones also used to record the ambient noises? If it that’s the case, Google would easily know from the engine’s noise that I was not cocooned inside an air-conditioned car.
In all fairness, I went to the desktop version of Maps to verify all of this, and checked the same thing, and saw that there’s an option to change the mode of transport. But I’m surprised because Google’s first and correct guess was that I was on a bike.
Or, simply, that Google just knows that I’m an avid motorcyclist. Almost my entire Instagram feed is full of photos of bikes, and travelling around the country on motorcycles. Same goes for my Facebook feed. For over six years, maybe Google has just known that I’m mad about motorcycles and ride a lot, and it just made the natural connection. I just wonder, if Google knows everything about me. Everything.