Peering Behind the Curtain

On December 1, 2011 · 2 Comments

I’ve used the Google Maps URL Shortener for a lot of links I’ve included within the Twelve Mile Circle. Often these maps are "also rans" that are interesting but not quite enough to embed directly within the page. They fall within the domain and directory. That’s a little different than the general Google URL Shortener at the domain.

They seem to fall into an interesting pattern. All of the file names are composed of five alphanumeric characters. I haven’t noticed any upper-case letters so this would imply 36^5 = 60,466,176 possibilities. Perhaps Google will include upper-case when those run out in which case there would be 62^5 = 916,132,832 possibilities. After that I suppose they could add a sixth character.

I wondered if it might be feasible to plug any random five-character string after and see a map someone else produced. Yes it is, and it felt like I was peering into business that didn’t belong to me even though it was completely accessible to the outside world. It got a little creepy.

Let’s consider an example. I began with a comment that Thias placed on my recent article, “No, Not That One.” Why Thias? Well, he’s been a long time reader and I like his comments. In this instance he mentioned Strasbourg, Saskatchewan and provided a shortened Google Maps link: Go ahead and open that link in another tab. See how it brings you to Strasbourg, Saskatchewan? Right.

I used "wwaqy" as my seed value. I went through the possibilities, changing only a single character on that string at a time to see if I could generate additional maps. It was a bit like pushing the button on a slot machine. Most of the time I got a "Page Not Found" error. I’d find a map once every few attempt at some random interval.

My advice: if you use the Google Maps URL Shortener, don’t make your home address one of the endpoints because it’s publicly accessible. I don’t know if these shortened designations last forever or whether they’re overwritten at some point. If someone sees this page in the distant future and nothing displays then I guess we’ll know our answer.

What follows is a selection of maps that I discovered. I created none of these. You are observing maps produced by other people who are completely unknown to me. They are posted without any editing on my part. – Hershey Park, Amish Country Road Trip.

View Larger Map

This person had a nice little road trip. He visited Hershey’s Chocolate World, toured through Amish Country, and ended his day at a residence outside of Baltimore. – Bus Directions in Oxford, England

View Larger Map

This might be a student at Oxford University, walking and taking a bus between two destinations. – Rio do Sul, Santa Catarina, Brasil

Exibir mapa ampliado

I don’t know why someone in Brazil decided to create this Street View image. It’s an interesting scene, however. – Rokitno to Zosin, Poland

Wy?wietl wi?ksz? map?

If you know someone who wanted to drive from Rokitno to Zosin in Poland, then you may know the person who generated this map. – Driving Directions in Taiwan


I did a little more searching on this one. The person used this to map to get driving directions to a corrugated paper store in Taiwan. I wasn’t aware of corrugated paper stores before today so their existence added a tiny bit of trivia to the knowledge lodged within my brain. – A Home in Mexico City

Ver mapa más grande

Drop into Street View on the little streets just to the north. They are fascinating.

Here are some additional examples if you still craving more. Again, each one is a single character removed from the seed value.

I am amazed at the worldwide nature of the links, and the multitude of functions explored by these unknown users (general map, driving directions, bus directions, street view, photos, "My Map" function). I will also be very careful to not reveal any potentially personal information when I use the Google Maps URL shortener in the future.

On December 1, 2011 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Peering Behind the Curtain”

  1. David F-H says:

    Nice article! A couple of thoughts…
    Aren’t many addresses public anyway? I mean, I can zoom in on portions of streets on google maps only to find addresses listed, so as long as you can’t find the way back to the ‘owner’ of each link, does the address thing really matter anyway?
    Also, does the internet (yes, the internet) really care about upper versus lowercase? If I type in that’ll bring me to you as simply (and more yelling-ly) as, right?
    Keep up the good work!

    • Good thoughts, David. To expand on those a bit, my concern wouldn’t be the street address so much as the address combined with additional information a map may convey. For instance, a trip to Hershey Park and Pennsylvania Dutch country is fairly innocuous, but what if instead someone was using Google Maps to find an abortion clinic? That’s probably something they wouldn’t want a stranger to be able to track back to their house.

      With respect to upper vs. lowercase, a lot of servers are UNIX-based and it actually does make a difference at the directory level. I don’t know if it makes a difference with Google Maps but I do know that’s the case when I upload files to my web host.

Comments are closed.

12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
Don't miss an article -
Subscribe to the feed!

RSS G+ Twitter
RSS Twelve Mile Circle Google Plus Twitter
Monthly Archives
Days with Posts
December 2017
« Nov