Sunday, February 8, 2009

Defeating Censorship in Google Earth


Many facilities and locations around the world appear pixellated in Google Earth for various reasons, usually because of security concerns due to the sensitive or military nature of the majority of these sites. Using the historical imagery feature in Google Earth, it is possible in some cases to defeat this censorship and view imagery of these areas. The imagery will not necessarily be the most current available, but it is still useful nonetheless.


Censored imagery can be viewed in numerous locations inside of Google Earth. Google has often claimed that it will listen to the security concerns of national agencies and governments, but in the case of the "revealing" of the Australian nuclear reactor a few years ago claimed that it did not see a reason to censor imagery in that specific case as the same area could be viewed in other imagery sources. This begs the question as to who is actually censoring the images, and it is likely that, at least in the case of Europe, the local providers (many of whom use aerial collection platforms for national geospatial functions) are doing the censoring to comply with local restrictions. Google then acquires and uploads this imagery, which is often censored. Military facilities in France and the Netherlands are two key examples of censorship making its way into Google Earth. This is not a fault of Google in any way; Google is merely acquiring as much imagery as possible and making it available at no cost using their program. Google has not shown any major inclination to censor imagery of its own volition, even with the objections of Australia and later India being on record. Now, with the incorporation of Google Earth 5's historical imagery feature, it is possible to view imagery from potentially different providers and circumvent the censorship that exists in many areas.


To illustrate the advantage that the historical imagery feature can provide when trying to view imagery of censored areas, consider the example of Dijon AB in France. It is commonplace in Google Earth for French military installations to be censored from view. In the case of France, the decision of what to censor appears limited to airbases, as their nuclear submarine base is clearly visible. This does raise questions as to whether the censorship has been applied only due to the wishes of the AdA, or if it was not applied correctly. In any case, Dijon AB and many others are censored in the default Google Earth view, and appear pixellated, as can be seen in the image below which was captured in 2006:
Employing the historical imagery feature allows imagery to be accessed which has not been censored, due perhaps to its inclusion into the database prior to the censorship being effected, or perhaps because it was sourced from a provider which does not believe it is responsible for censoring its products. The image below depicts Dijon AB as it appeared in 2004. There have likely not been any major alterations to the basic infrastructure in the two years that elapsed between the two images, so the historical imagery should be effective for use in analyzing the facility.

Whatever the reasoning behind the decision, Google has allowed censored imagery to be incorporated into Google Earth. Thanks to the inclusion of the historical imagery feature in Google Earth 5, many of these locations can now be viewed, albeit from earlier and less current dates. Whether or not this continues to be the case will depend on Google's realization of this potential error, or their decision to no longer allow altered imagery to be included into the data set.


Feel free to discuss the content of this article at the IMINT & Analysis Forum in the discussion thread found here.


-Imagery provided courtesy of Google Earth

1 comment:

Raul said...

What do you think of this (38° 33' 16.80"N; 9° 6' 35.70" W) NATO complex? When I first tried to observe it some months ago it was censured. But now it's not.