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.