Google Maps is changing, and fast. But now, Google says it's rolling out a stealthy new feature that might be a bigger deal than anything else in a long time.

First, the background. Last month, Google Maps unveiled that it was giving users the ability to post warnings about speed traps (along with hazards, slowdowns, and other highway issues) right on Google Maps itself.

The feature had long been available on Google-owned Waze, which is the second-most-popular maps application in the Apple App Store. (Google Maps itself is No. 1 as I write this.) 

Letting users do this turns the community of people using Google Maps into the world's most effective radar detector.

That explains why police absolutely hate it. But if you've ever found yourself toggling back and forth between Google Maps and Waze on long drives (I certainly have), the new feature is a godsend.

That said, as big a deal as this was, on Friday, Google Maps announced it's finally started to roll out something more consequential in the long run: Incognito Mode.

It's not pure, 100 percent privacy, but it's a step in the right direction, and an adaptation of what Google says is one of the most popular features of its Chrome browser. When you turn on Incognito Mode in Google Maps, here's what the company says will happen:

  • It will stop saving your browser and search history (or sending notifications), so whatever you're searching for at the moment won't influence your future search results
  • It won't update your location history or shared locations, and 
  • It will stop personalizing Maps using personal data

If there's one drawback to Incognito Mode, I think it's that people who haven't read articles like this one are likely to assume it's more powerful than it actually is. It doesn't mean nobody can know where you've been traveling or what you've been searching for. 

For one thing, your internet service provider might be tracking some or all of this data. And just because you've flipped Google Maps into Incognito Mode doesn't mean other apps aren't tracking you.

As Lily Hay Newman wrote in Wired early last month in anticipation of this new tool, it's better to think of Incognito Mode on all Google products as "less of a sophisticated privacy tool and more of a pause button on a TV remote."

Still, in this age when people are much more attuned to the degree to which we're being tracked by just about every tech tool we use, it's a smart feature.

Back in May, Google said Incognito Mode would be rolling out on Android first, followed by a version for iPhone. The more recent announcement only addresses the Android version.

I'd be willing to go out on a bit of a limb and predict that it will follow for iOS devices too, if only because Apple introduced a major update to its own Maps application about a month ago--after years of admitting its maps were so bad that Apple actually recommended users download its competitor's version.

As I wrote last month, it just makes sense if you're willing to "follow the money" and watch how one big tech company reacts to another. Only now, Google might be a little less likely to follow you at the same time. 

Published on: Nov 3, 2019
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