Google Shuts Down Map Maker Following Hacks

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After a series of spam attacks and other obscene edits, Google has temporarily taken its crowdsourced map editing tool Map Maker offline. The online tool has, for years, allowed those in countries without detailed maps to be able to add various details and points of interest to Google Maps, like new roads or parks, for example.

But in more recent months, the tool has been instead used by some to upload inappropriate content to Google Maps – like the recent prank which added an image of the Android mascot urinating on the Apple logo, for instance.

Another prank saw a user adding a business called “Edwards Snow Den” located right in the White House by exploiting a loophole that allowed you to change a business listing’s address after its creation.

In April, Google said it was working to improve its spam detection system for Map Maker. But that, apparently, wasn’t enough.

Now Google is shutting down access to the system entirely starting on Tuesday May 12, according to a new message that pops up if you try to make an edit on Google Maps using Map Maker. The message links to a more lengthy explanation in the Google Map Maker forum, where Product Manager Pavithra Kanakarajan confirms that the decision to shut the project down for the time being is directly related to the “escalated attacks to spam Google Maps over the past few months.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 12.25.00 PM

She says that this most recent attack (referring to the image of the Android urinating), was “particularly troubling and unfortunate,” and that Google has now suspended auto-approval and user moderation across the globe. This will remain the case until Google figures out ways to add “more intelligent mechanisms to prevent such incidents,” Kanakarajan adds.

Currently, all edits are going through a manual review process, but obviously, that’s not a scalable solution for a platform as large as Google Maps. With Map Maker, users in over 200 countries worldwide have been able to add and update map information for Google Maps’ and Google Earth’s millions of users.

Kanakarajan’s post, which was first spotted by the blog SEO Roundtable, notes that Google has already made several changes to try to address the spam problem, but the company realized that a larger fix is going to take more than just a few days. To be fair to users, Google decided to close down Map Maker while the changes are in the works.

She writes:

“As you can imagine, turning automated and user moderation off has the direct implication of very large backlogs of edits requiring manual review. This in turn means your edits will take a long time to get published.

Given the current state of the system, we have come to the conclusion that it is not fair to any of our users to let them continue to spend time editing. Every edit you make is essentially going to a backlog that is growing very fast. We believe that it is more fair to only say that if we do not have the capacity to review edits at roughly the rate they come in, we have to take a pause.”

The shutdown beginning on May 12 is meant to be temporary, however, and will continue until Google has an improved moderation system in place. But neither the forum posting nor the pop-up message presented to Map Maker users gives any indication of how long a process that may be.

Implementing a more robust spam detection system for the platform is no small effort, though Google is well-versed in this technology thanks to its other products like Search and Gmail, for example, which require the company to be able to filter good content from the bad.

That said, Map Maker will require a unique solution. After all, one of the problems that led to Map Maker’s recent hacks is that the system relied too heavily on the power of the community to vet the changes and edits.

And for whatever reason, many in the community decided to allow the obscene edits to pass review – maybe they made a mistake, maybe thought it was funny, or maybe they were in on the prank themselves. It would have been difficult for Google’s system to catch these earlier hacks because some of the users had a good history of edits before approving the changes that allowed the obscene images to go live.

We’ve asked Google for more details regarding how long it thinks the system will be offline, and will update if the company responds.

Update: These hacks are everywhere –