All Waze lead to Google

Google has bought Waze, the crowd-source navigation app. Great news for the Israeli start-up - but should users be worried?

There are times when the tech blogs seem more like gossip magazines than business journalism. The saga of Waze over the past six months feels more like the obsession over who a minor royal will marry rather than business analysis of the best fit for an exit.

However, that stage is thankfully over, as the Israeli navigation start-up has found itself not just a suitor, but a willing marriage partner:

I am excited to announce today that we have accepted an offer to join Google. I’d like to share some information about what this means for Waze.

Larry Page, Brian McClendon and the Google Maps teams have been following our progress closely and are excited about what we’ve accomplished. They share our vision of a global mapping service, updated in real time by local communities, and wish to help us accelerate. We are excited about the prospect of working with the Google Maps team to enhance our search capabilities and to join them in their ongoing efforts to build the best map of the world.

The reasons behind this choice seem pretty clear: the team get to stay where they are and, for the time being, continue working as a separate team:

The Waze product development team will remain in Israel and operate separately for now. We’re excited about the prospect of enhancing Google Maps with some of the traffic update features provided by Waze and enhancing Waze with Google’s search capabilities.

(Emphasis mine).

All very lovely for everyone involved – Google gets to add real-time crowd-sourced traffic data to its mapping, Waze gets a $1bn plus exit (according to rumours). And the users… Well, there’s the issue, isn’t it?

When we last looked at Waze back in November last year, I made the point that I enjoy using Waze, and it’s been a good solution for me:

The social aspect of the app really appeals to me, and not just for the prosaic benefits of the constantly updated feed of traffic flow information. Not getting stuck in traffic jams is great – and Waze hasn’t let me down yet – but the sense of other Waze users around me as I drive is surprisingly comforting. I spend a decent amount of time doing three-hour drives on my own, and on late-night runs, that sense of community is really valuable. Getting traffic reports from others and making your own – and getting thanks for them – makes the journey feel less lonely.

But with that enthusiasm came a reservation:

[…] I’ve discovered that there’s not getting away from the basic fact that the app is sharing your location publicly in real time. That information may not be in a form that can be used – or used easily, at least – but it is happening. That’s enough of a privacy violation to disconcert some people.

Even the argument that the “adders” car can’t be definitively identified as me holds less water now that the latest update to the app has brought with it Facebook identification. If you know me on Facebook, you can know which car is mine.

How much more acute does that concern come now Waze will slowly be integrated into the Google infrastructure? Google is already using my searches to make some guess at where I want to go – it will now know definitively where I’m headed, and how long it took me to get there. In exchange for the utility of navigation – and very efficient navigation at that – I’m essentially handing over my location in real time to Google. It’s just like Google Latitude location sharing used to be – but with a real benefit to me from the sharing this time.

Not surprisingly, people are already starting to agitate about the issue:

The US Department of Justice has been urged to block Google’s $1.3bn acquisition of the traffic app Waze, on antitrust grounds.

John Simpson, the privacy project director of Consumer Watchdog, a US pressure group, has written a letter to the DoJ warning that allowing the acquisition “would remove the most viable competitor to Google Maps in the mobile space”.

No word yet if they’ll take action – but there’s no doubt that the pool of modern mapping and navigation systems has just shrunk a little.

And it’s a poor time to be rattling people’s cages over privacy issues. The recent exposure of the US Government’s PRISM programme for obtaining user data from online companies has people worried beyond the normal privacy advocates. The acquisition of Waze potentially throws a whole chunk of real-time location data into that system.

NEXT13 may have been and gone, but it’s clear that out there on the internet, there still be dragons…

 Image by K?rlis Dambr?ns on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons licence.