I was out riding my bike early one morn with a small group of riders that ride together semi-regularly. It was a popular route amongst cyclists around the city with different groups using it most mornings. On this particular morning, there was a rider that I didn’t recognise but I assumed he was friends with someone else in the group. As the peloton rotated and we chatted away, we finally realised that everyone in the peloton thought the same thing – that the new rider was friends with someone else. It was almost like a scene from a farcical comedy where everyone assumes the new guy is linked to someone else.

When we finally realised what had happened we introduced ourselves and found out a little more information. The anonymous rider was a sales rep who travelled extensively across the State. He liked to cycle so he would bring his bike with him. Rather than ride by himself, he used a Strava heat map to look at popular routes and then simply rode one of those routes to join up with other cyclists. What a simple concept and it worked brilliantly for this rider, but what is a Strava heat map and how does it work?

Strava is THE social network for athletes and is used to track and share cycling and running activities using a variety of devices that track activity with satellite navigation. As I have heard many cyclists say, it didn’t happen unless it is on Strava. It seems simple enough – many devices are aware of their position via GPS satellites so it makes sense to easily track distances and time via that network. In the old days, cyclists would measure out their wheel circumference and enter that into a cycling odometer and gain a rough idea of speed and distance. Runners would often drive their car around a preferred route and rely on the accuracy of that odometer to calculate their distance. Enter the GPS world and a small device carried on your body (such as a smartphone or watch) can track your distance and give real-time feedback on speeds and distance covered. It makes it easy to set personal challenges and share that information with your colleagues.

Strava, in particular, is not device specific so any number of devices and brands (Garmin; Polar; Fitbit; Smartphones; etc.) can be used to record and upload data. This has resulted in over one million active users across the globe and over one billion activities. These activities consist of three trillion latitude/longitude points and a total distance of 27 billion kilometres. It is a huge amount of data (over ten terabytes actually) and after processing and manipulating the data, the end result is a pretty view of anywhere in the world with brighter lines on more commonly travelled routes. Hence the ease of our random cyclist mentioned at the beginning of the article to see the popular routes around any town or city.

In a perfect world, that would be the end of the story and a fascinating example of data mining. Unfortunately, we live in uncertain times and this has created a worldwide security risk. It was recently noted that various international military bases lit up around certain routes. Given the fact that Strava is mainly being used by foreign military personnel in these war-torn countries, it allows anyone with sinister intentions to easily see routes regularly used by personnel for exercise and establish a pattern of life at a base. This exposes all personnel at those bases to potential attack.

Now that this simple flaw has been noticed I am sure we will see some blackout zones in Strava heat maps but I don’t expect that to impact us as we ride and run through our streets. It is just another fascinating example of the changing world we live in. It was only three years ago that a Strava heat map didn’t exist – and now it could potentially be used to plan a military attack. The Australian Rugby League Coach of the Twentieth Century, Jack Gibson, was talking about footy but he could just as easily have been talking about technology when he said, “If you are standing still, you’re going backwards fast.”

Mathew Dickerson

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