Colorado Transportation Officals Asked Navigation App Providers To Plant False Information. Worse, The Providers Complied.

from the slippery-slope-of-faking-slippery-slopes dept

Well, this isn't cool. Colorado transportation officials fed bogus information to map apps to make an open road appear to be closed.

Hoping to keep traffic from rerouting to a smaller road after a larger highway was closed due to rockslides, the Colorado Department of Transportation did this:

[T]he Colorado Department of Transportation marked the road as closed on its travelers update site http://www.cotrip.org because of a “safety closure due to mudslide,” and Pitkin County Undersheriff Alex Burchetta said Wednesday afternoon the county sent out an alert about 3:30 p.m. as such, based on that information.

However, there were not any mudslides and the messaging “evolved” and was changed by CDOT, Burchetta said. A CDOT spokesperson confirmed there were no slides.

That affected the DOT's own site, which is itself problematic. Drivers depend on that information being accurate. Falsifying reports for the purpose of controlling traffic flow shouldn't be considered acceptable.

But that wasn't the only travel information outlet affected by the DOT's shady traffic shaping.

Gregg Miller, a CDOT business process architect, was tasked with contacting the navigation services when agency officials were desperately trying to prevent motorists from flooding Highway 82 during the closure of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon because of mudslides and the ensuing damage.

Traffic levels were hitting an estimated 7,000 to 9,000 vehicles per day during the week of Aug. 1 compared to a normal load of 1,000 vehicles per day, one official estimated.

John Lorme, CDOT director of maintenance and operations, directed Miller via email on Aug. 4 at 11:49 a.m. to get the roads closed on the navigation services.

“I need this to show closed to traffic on the mapping apps, soonest,” Lorme wrote. “I will assume responsibility. All locals understand what’s going on. It’s the (commercial vehicle) and (recreational vehicle) traffic that is creating hazardous conditions.”

CDOT is a "trusted partner" with multiple navigation app providers, allowing it to directly feed traffic information to these companies. But there's nothing trustworthy about feeding false information to popular consumer apps. It seems if the DOT wanted to close a road or limit its traffic, it had plenty of options that didn't involve delivering false information to drivers via map apps and the DOT's own website.

Making this worse was the DOT's decision to maintain the illusion of a road closure on consumer apps while updating its own site to reflect the actual facts.

Miller was successful in getting Google, Waze, Apple and TomTom to show Highway 82 as closed on Aug. 4. However, CDOT executive director Shoshana Lew insisted that evening that the agency keep Highway 82 marked as open on cotrip.org, the agency’s real-time road status app.

This doesn't fix the problem. Drivers are more likely to rely on navigation apps than government websites when dealing with travel complications. Efforts like this diminish trust -- both of the apps drivers use and the government that's supposed to be serving them.

Just as worrying was these companies' agreement to participate in the ruse. Communications obtained with public records requests appear to show Google and Apple knew they were being asked to plant false information in their map offerings.

The next morning, Miller wrote to his supervisor, CDOT chief engineer Stephen Harelson, to express his concerns. Miller said maintenance and operations personnel had directed him to contact Google, Waze and Apple the prior day to ask them to “show Independence Pass closed for traffic routing purposes for the entire month of August.”

“We are currently listed as a ‘trusted partner’ with these services and while they questioned this (request), I explained to them that CDOT is concerned about the traffic levels on the road and they need to be closed,” Miller wrote. “They did it but questioned why COTRIP showed Independence Pass as open.”

Google's statement appears to indicate it's willing to plant fake information if asked to do so by government agencies.

"When official changes are made to restrict certain routes, we update our directions accordingly.”

Apparently that includes showing a road is closed when it actually isn't and listing a nonexistent hazard (mudslide) as the reason for the (fake) closure.

Obviously, nothing can really prevent government officials from straight up lying about road conditions to map app providers. But this fiasco involved not only the planting of false information by government officials, but the active participation of navigation app providers. This is a huge abuse of trust by all parties involved -- something that could very well lead to drivers ignoring road closure warnings in the future and putting themselves in danger.

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Filed Under: cdot, colorado, fake information, navigation, traffic, traffic routing, transportation
Companies: apple, google, tomtom, waze


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Sep 2021 @ 11:46am

    Fool me once...

    If there is one thing I would like to tattoo on the forehead of every government official, (not including the politicians:)

    NEVER.

    EVER.

    LIE.

    Not once, not ever,

    One lie destroys years of truth, past and future. The next time CDOT needs to close a road or re-route traffic, lots of people will remember this incident, ignore the official information, and get themselves and others hurt.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Sep 2021 @ 11:50am

      Re: Fool me once...

      I can't help but wonder how much less bad the pandemic would be today if the CDC and WHO hadn't lied, (downplaying masks as protection,) denied science, (refusing to accept the virus travels airborne,) or bowed to politicians who didn't want to look bad, (hiding data on the severity in Wuhan.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        sumgai (profile), 3 Sep 2021 @ 2:29pm

        Re: Re: Fool me once...

        Assumes so many facts not in evidence... well deserving of a Troll Flag.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          AricTheRed, 3 Sep 2021 @ 9:37pm

          Re: Re: Re: Fool me once...

          Which facts are not in evidence exactly?

          The CDC initially did not recommend masks when they knew they should.

          It was worse in Wuhan than was reported to the public by US govt officials (I have coworkers with family in Wuhan & these American citizens & permanent US residents comms were certainly collected by the NSA)

          Given that the us intel community likely knew much more than was/has been shared with the public it seems to me the facts not being in evidence has more to do with what .gov wants in evidence rather than what evidence is available.

          But hey, might just be wrong. I am a married guy…

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 4 Sep 2021 @ 2:07pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Fool me once...

            There was a reason why they didn't recommend it: information about how the virus spreads wasn't as well-known as it is nowadays, and so the recommendation wasn't given so that way people wouldn't deplete the stock of masks, thereby endangering medical personnel due to lack of PPE.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      sumgai (profile), 3 Sep 2021 @ 2:28pm

      Re: Fool me once...

      The next time CDOT needs to close a road or re-route traffic, lots of people will remember this incident, ignore the official information, and get themselves and others hurt.

      And very shortly after that, the lawyers will point back to this incident as a legal basis for why their clients had good cause to doubt the veracity of such warnings. The first line of attack will be: "The State's intentional failure to properly secure and maintain the motoring public's trust in road signage", or some such.

      The fact that a governmental agency can be "trusted" is probably the largest concern to come out of this whole story. Thousands of drivers stating that they just successfully drove an open road should automatically trump an official's word that it's closed. The moral of the story for those map apps is: Trust.... but verify.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    OGquaker, 3 Sep 2021 @ 11:54am

    The shitshow called democracy

    "nothing can really prevent government officials from straight up lying" or "don't-treat-bad-faith-actors-like-they're-good-faith-actors dept" Techdirt's on to something

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Sep 2021 @ 11:55am

    I think it's germane to the story to point out that Highway 82 goes through Aspen, home of many people who have a) a ton of money, and b) a huge sense of entitlement.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 3 Sep 2021 @ 11:59am

    Do we call the DOT out, or just let it slide?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 3 Sep 2021 @ 1:01pm

    'Sure they say it's closed, but they're liars so...'

    Well if they wanted to achieve short-term gains in the form of keeping people off a road in exchange for long-term losses in the form of people knowing that their maps aren't trustworthy congrats everyone involved, you showed the public how untrustworthy you are and made them more likely to try other alternatives and/or ignore warnings on the maps because you've shown you're willing to lie about those sorts of things.

    No worries though, I'm sure nothing wrong could possibly happen when users know that apps are willing to create fraudulent road hazards and therefore those things can be ignored.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Sep 2021 @ 1:22pm

    So why not close it?

    Why didn't they just close the road? They could have also restricted it to local traffic only. Both of those options would then make it so they weren't lying. Seems odd.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Sep 2021 @ 1:44pm

      Re: So why not close it?

      Forget about it, Jake. It's Aspen.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Sep 2021 @ 3:36pm

      Re: So why not close it?

      Isn't there also an option to show it as experiencing heavy traffic, so the algorithms try to route around it to some extent? That wouldn't even have been a lie.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 3 Sep 2021 @ 5:34pm

        Re: Re: So why not close it?

        They could have restricted access, posted and routed detours, especially if there are valid safety concerns. They could have done it all honestly.

        So, this is either just some guy's authoritarian nature, or they thought being honest would bring in unnecessary complaints. Oops bad choice either way.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 3 Sep 2021 @ 7:57pm

    Huh... they had no problem using the platforms to push misinformation but aren't these the same assholes threatening to sue or do other stupid things when platforms push misinformation?

    Also bulldoze Aspen and make the road wider... problem solved.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Sep 2021 @ 9:06pm

    You know every driver was on the internet while driving just to know that the road was really open according to CDOT... NOT.

    Likely some of those residents that lived on or off that highway got the message they couldn't go home. Next time there is a real mudslide, they'll remember this and try it anyway. Not very smart as far as public officials go.

    ...and you wonder why there is a deteriorating trust in the government both local and national?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Sep 2021 @ 12:26pm

    So any CDOT data needs to be purged quickly from google maps/earth and openstreetmaps etc as its now considered dangerous and unreliable.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 4 Sep 2021 @ 12:55pm

      Re:

      If nothing else they should lose the 'trusted partner' tag as they've shown they're willing to lie and provide false information with any future information treated as questionable until proven by a third party.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Davey (profile), 6 Sep 2021 @ 7:57am

    This road is not for casual use.

    The road in question is a poorly maintained dirt road that climbs over a mountain pass. It contains several tight switchbacks and poor road conditions. It generally requires a high clearance 4WD vehicle. There is a sign at the base telling people not to pull trailers over 35 feet long because they can't negotiate the switchbacks.

    Travelers trying to bypass the I-90 closure in Glenwood canyon have routinely ignored the posted warnings. Recently, Grayhound bus attempted the ascent and was stopped when the driver ripped out the oil pan from under the engine. Passengers had to be rescued, baggage recovered, the oil spill cleaned up and the wrecked bus dealt with.

    The road is not closed to local traffic because locals know that the road is for recreational use only. The problem was that phone apps were routing tourists on it to get around the Interstate-90 road closure in Glenwood canyon. The State of Colorado made a reasonable attempt to keep idiots from harming themselves.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Sep 2021 @ 12:02pm

      Re: This road is not for casual use.

      That doesn't sound like a "highway" at all. I've never been to CO, but the worst I've experienced as far as "highway that's not really a highway maybe" is in the South East where your "State Route" and "US Highway" are on the same path and roll through a town's center (often with a sudden drop in speed from like 65 to 35 to 25). I looked at google maps and I see places on one part of it that would keep me from planning a trip *through* there if it wasn't part of an intentional scenic trip, but also it's the same color as the highway that runs around the perimeter of Las Vegas where traffic moves at 85+ MPH. Are there enough of these "highway that's not really a highway" situations that we should be rethinking how we define or regulate use of the word?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Sep 2021 @ 2:37pm

      Re: This road is not for casual use.

      You're mixing up a number of different roads here.

      The article is talking about state highway 82, which is south of I-70 and goes from south of Leadville, over Independence pass, through Aspen, Carbondale, and then to Glenwood Springs. This route is paved the entire way.

      The bus got stuck on Coffee Pot Road, which goes north from the Dotsero exit from I-70, which is just east of Glenwood Canyon. AFAIK, that road dead ends in the flatops wilderness, unless you have a high clearance 4x4, then you can take it back down to Glenwood springs.

      https://www.postindependent.com/news/passenger-bus-gets-stuck-in-flat-tops-requires-garfiel d-county-rescue/

      The "poorly maintained dirt road that climbs over a mountain pass" is Cottonwood Pass road, aka County Road 10a, which does connect with Highway 82. This route goes between Gypsum, right off I-70, and Carbondale.

      https://www.aspentrailfinder.com/cottonwood-pass-road/

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Lisa, 13 Sep 2021 @ 11:01am

    Missing key details…

    The road in question cannot accommodate vehicles over 35 feet in length, because of a windy one-lane shelf road for a short section. During the closure of I-70, it was very common for tractor trailers to attempt this road and get stuck there, despite a multitude of warning signs. That would close the road for the remainder of the day, each time a TT attempted it. This was because navigation was sending TTs that way. From anecdotes from locals who intercepted TTs, we know at least some of TT drivers do not speak or read English, so could not understand the many warning signs trying to stop them from using this route. Yes, CDOT should have manned both sides of the pass to monitor which vehicles were going over. Unfortunately it was not just this route that was severely impacted, and they were spread very thin. Most of the routes CDOT aimed to show as closed (it’s more than just this one) should not be options on navigation systems ever, as they are not designed for heavy traffic.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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