Home Troubling Google Contractor Allegedly Caught Vandalizing Open Street Map (Updated)

Troubling Google Contractor Allegedly Caught Vandalizing Open Street Map (Updated)

The official blog of Open Street Map reports tonight that someone at a range of Google IP addresses in India has been editing the collaboratively made map of the world in some very unhelpful ways, like moving and deleting information and reversing the direction of one-way streets on the map.

Update: Google sent the following statement to ReadWriteWeb on Tuesday morning. “The two people who made these changes were contractors acting on their own behalf while on the Google network. They are no longer working on Google projects.”

The IP addresses match the same ones that were caught last week running a long-term scam wherein telephone directory listings were scraped from a crowd-sourced phone directory in Kenya called Mocality. A Google contractor then systematically called those phone numbers claiming to have a paid placement deal jointly offered by the Kenyan company and Google! A Google spokesperson told BoingBoing on Friday that the company was “mortified” by the discovery – but now it appears the same Google contractor may be behind mayhem rippling throughout one of the world’s biggest maps. Google says it’s investigating these latest allegations.

Open Street Map said tonight that two user accounts have been found vandalizing streets in New York, London and elsewhere since at least last Thursday. Full investigation of the actions may take time, OSM said, because at least 17 user accounts have accessed OSM from those Google IP adresses more than 100,000 times over the past year.

Is this a Google contractor with something against crowdsourced projects? That’s one thing both targets have in common. Neither offense seems short-lived or trivial though, either.

Open Street Map is like Wikipedia for world maps. It’s a fabulous and inspiring project, I think, but not everyone agrees.

In August 2010, Open Street Map co-founder Steve Coast wrote a long blog post titled Enough is Enough: Disinfecting OSM from Poisonous People. That post has been read by almost 175,000 people.

Coast said that divisive conversations “have spilled over now from poisonous people merely making life difficult on the mailing list, to paralyzing the project and even systematically corrupting the data we serve out using bots…Many (if not most or all) of the key people in OSM are feeling drained, distracted and upset. Some are talking of hiatus or resign. These are the key people who write code, build things, maintain things and run our working groups.”

Three months after writing that post, Coast left the company that supports Open Street Map and became the Principal Architect at Bing Maps.

Coast was one of three signers of tonight’s blog post that concludes as follows:

“These actions are somewhat baffling given our past good relationship with Google which has included donations and Summer of Code work. As a community we take the quality of our data extremely seriously and look forward to an explanation from Google and an undertaking to not allow this kind of thing to happen in the future.”

In response to our request for comment, a Google spokesperson said tonight, “We’re aware of OpenStreetMap’s claims that vandalism of OSM is occurring from accounts originating at a Google IP address. We are investigating the matter and will have more information as soon as possible.”

It will be interesting to see how the company responds to this, the second serious allegation of wrongdoing by one of its contracting companies inside of a week.

It would be nice if Open Street Map could continue to flourish and grow. Bad actors may be an inevitable issue for an open site building collective knowledge at scale, but it would be good if people sitting in Google offices around the world were all helping instead of hurting such efforts. Reversing the direction on one-way streets is a particularly nasty thing to do.

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