Imagery of sectarian destruction In Burma’s Rakhine state now on Google Earth

In Burma’s Rakhine state, a long-standing sectarian conflict between the Rohingya Muslim minority and the Rakhine Buddhist majority has recently escalated: In the last few days, the western coastal town of Kyauk Pyu saw an entire Rohingya neighborhood destroyed, satellite imagery acquired by Human Rights Watch shows.

HRW’s analysis of the imagery is available as a PDF, but not as an overlay onto Google Earth, so I extracted the imagery and made one myself. Here it is as a KMZ file, ready to download and open in Google Earth.

The file contains two overlays: Digital Globe imagery of the neighborhood before its destruction taken on March 9, 2012, and imagery taken just after the destruction, on the morning of October 25, 2012. According to HRW, the area was razed on October 24. The current imagery in Google Earth’s default later is from December 20, 2009.

As usual, the best way to explore these overlays is to turn on one or both, and then to play with the opacity slider, so that you can quickly compare the imagery from 2009, March 2012 and from just a few days ago:

In Google Earth, the new imagery gains a lot of context — not just in terms of the size of the area that has been razed, but also by situating the imagery inside the Burmese state, whose isolation until recently still means the area is terra incognita to most. In Google Earth, meanwhile, the Panoramio layer boasts several photos from the immediate vicinity of the destruction — such as this one, by B. Bavčević:

Apple Maps and the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands

Much fun has been had at Apple’s expense this past week over the half-baked mapping product it released with iOS 6. The main benefactor has been the Google Maps team, whose painstaking work and years of experience are no longer in danger of being taken for granted. Publishing digital maps that “just work” is proving to be a lot more difficult than most realized, with The Atlantic and TechCrunch pitching in to tell that story.

As Internet serendipity dictates, the Apple Maps blowback meme soon crossed another meme — the flare-up in the ongoing territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, with China, Taiwan and Japan all claiming sovereignty. First, there was the (incorrect) rumor doing the rounds in Beijing that Apple Maps had taken sides:


Upon closer inspection, it became apparent that while there are no labels or borders depicted near the islands, the islands themselves are rendered twice in the map view of Apple Maps — with a search for “Senkaku Islands” dropping a pin on one set of islands, and a search for “Diaoyu Islands” dropping a pin on the other:

When viewed in satellite view, the island labeled by the Diaoyu search disappears:

How does Google Earth/Maps stack up against Apple’s efforts?

First, there is clear evidence that Google also grappled with raw data containing a duplicate set of islands. Zoom in close enough in the satellite view and you see that the non-satellite seafloor dataset makes room for satellite imagery in a repeated, transposed pattern along a NE/SW axis, separated by the same margin of error that separates Apple Maps’ islands:

It’s fair to conclude that Google ran the seafloor masking algorithm before any human map error correction. In this case, the result is just some extra satellite imagery of island-less — but not completely empty — ocean: Just at the edge of the mask we see what I assume is a Japanese patrol vessel plowing full-steam ahead towards the islands, in an image captured on July 30, 2009.

In Google Maps’ map view, meanwhile, there is just one set of islands represented — the southwesterly one, as this is where georeferenced satellite imagery actually places the islands. This implies that at some point, a human was involved in noticing and correcting the duplication.

In Google Earth, turning on historical imagery removes the seafloor mask, so you can see the satellite image tiles in their entirety. One nearby tile alerts us to the presence of an outlying islet some 100km east of the main group; Google’s masking algorithm doesn’t quite pick it up. It is therefore invisible in the satellite view of Google Maps, and in Apple Maps too.

How might the duplicated islands have come about? Close inspection in Apple Maps (on an iPad — Apple’s maps are mobile only) reveals that the datasets are not identical; the contours of the islands are drawn differently. They thus come from different sources. And while all mapping data sources can contain one-off errors, officially sanctioned maps of China are all offset spatially by a variable amount in a ham-fisted attempt at thwarting GPS-based georeferencing by mere civilians.

My strong suspicion, then, is that the duplicate island belongs to an intentionally inaccurate Chinese dataset. There is some irony in that.

When it comes to labels, Google approaches the dispute in a typically Googley way: In Google Maps (though not in Google Earth, curiously), we get more information, not less:

The islands are named in both Japanese and Chinese. In Japanese, the islands are labeled 尖閣諸島 (Senkaku-shotō, or “Senkaku group of islands”); in Chinese, they are called 钓鱼诸岛 (Diàoyúqúndǎo, or “Diaoyu group of islands”). Individual island names are also labeled in both languages.

This approach to disputes is similar to Google’s dual labeling of the Persian/Arabian Gulf and the East Sea/Sea of Japan, though it is a policy that is at times applied haphazardly: For a similar dispute between Korea and Japan over the Liancourt rocks, Google Maps stays mute while Google Earth gets an expository popup label. And Google doesn’t currently label the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands with a Roman alphabet, which makes it difficult for most Google Maps users to comprehend, unless they have the third-party Panoramio photo layer turned on.)

Finally, a few more observations re Apple Maps that don’t quite fit anywhere else:

  • For the user interface fanatics that Apple engineers clearly are, the two-fingered navigation of Apple Maps in 3D mode is far less intuitive that for the iPhone’s Google Earth app. The latter is far better at guessing whether I want to tilt the view, rotate or zoom.
  • When using iOS 6 within China’s great firewall, Apple Maps’ satellite view only shows imagery of China, with the rest of the world blacked out:

Image courtesy of The Next Web

I’m intrigued by the technical “solution” behind this behavior: One likelihood is that Apple’s servers check the iOS device’s geolocated IP address before deciding which imagery dataset to send it. Google, in contrast, quarantines its country-specific datasets behind separate URLs (,…), leaving the choice of dataset up to consumers, with governments free to block URLs from their citizens if they dare.

As a corollary, the Chinese Maps dataset provided to Apple by its Chinese provider is not available globally, but only to users inside China. If you repeat China resident Anthony Drendel’s search in Apple Maps for “Lijiang Teachers College” outside China, you get a different view:

From left to right: Drendel’s map view of the teachers’ college from inside China, my map view from outside China and my satellite view from outside China.

It is possible that Apple’s solution does not require a conspiratorial collaboration with the Chinese authorities. As the logo in the bottom right of Drendel’s screenshot shows, his dataset is provided by Autonavi, a company specializing in Chinese mapping data only. Maybe Apple simply hasn’t had the time or the legal license to properly mash together Autonavi’s dataset with Apple’s global dataset, including Tomtom’s. A lack of time would also explain the duplication of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

[Update 2012/09/26: A post on the Wall Street Journal Digits blog today appears to confirm that a lack of time prevented the integration of the Chinese and global datasets, quoting a source:

Integrating the two would take time due to a number of complexities, which include integrating map search databases and coding, a person familiar with the matter said.]

Apple censors iPad Maps app over South Korea

While re-reading my previous post on an iPad today, I discovered some odd behavior on the iPad’s Maps app: When zooming in on satellite imagery of South Korea, the app prevents close zooms in the same manner as Google’s, even though the app serves Google’s reference content from This constraint does not exist when accessing via Safari for iPad, the new Chrome for iPad or Google Earth for iPad, which leads me to conclude that Apple has decided to hobble its Maps app globally when it comes to viewing satellite imagery of South Korea. I suspect this is because Apple sells iPads in South Korea with the Maps app included, turning it into a purveyor of South Korean maps, and thus responsible for compliance with the South Korean laws mentioned in the previous post.

Specifically, the area in which close zooming is prevented is a rectangular box between 125º and 130º East longitude, 34º and 38º45′ North latitude (not 39º, as that would bisect Pyongyang, which would presumably have made people wonder what’s going on.) Here it is embedded on Google Maps:

View Apple iPad Maps app zoom restriction for South Korea in a larger map

Surprisingly, this bounding box does not actually cleanly encompass South Korea. The large South Korean island of Jeju lies completely outside this perimeter, as well as some other small islands hugging South Korea’s southern coastline. (Does this mean Apple is still in technical breach of the relevant South Korean law?) Meanwhile, the large Japanese island of Tsushima lies completely inside the perimeter, and is thus censored in equal measure as the rest of South Korea. ( accurately censors Jeju but not Tsushima.)

Apple’s action contrasts with Google’s because Apple has let its compliance with a local law “bleed” into its global product — my iPad bought in Sweden. It is also in contrast to previous Apple actions, which saw it offer a special non-GPS iPhone in Egypt, a special non-wifi iPhone in China, and a special hard-wired mapping solution that only allowed content to display on iPhones sold in China. Perhaps South Korea is not large enough a market to qualify for its own specially hobbled product; or perhaps Apple has changed its approach, and is now more willing to apply local censorship demands globally. It will be very interesting to track Apple’s responses to the censorship demands Google has faced down when its mapping service goes live in iOS 6.

Constraining online maps: The case of South Korea

If you are a web-based service provider and don’t have operations in a specific country, then that country’s laws cannot constrain the services you provide to users there. If Bahrain were to decide it doesn’t like Google’s maps, it could try to block the relevant URLs wholesale, but it has no legal recourse to compel Google to censor its maps. That’s because there are no Googlers, Google servers, or Google Street View cars in Bahrain.

But with Google’s global operations now having expanded to over 40 countries, far more countries are able to regulate the services Google provides locally. And when it comes to mapping and location-based services, some of them most definitely do.

Over the years, China and India have been the two main countries tracked on this blog for authoritarian tendencies when it comes to borders, names and third-party content. Because of the size of these two markets, Google has generally acquiesced to the legal restrictions governing locally published web maps, but has always made sure to contain the damage to the datasets aimed at these countries. Local users have always had recourse to the unmolested content served from outside the country — the reference content of and Google Earth.

Recently, it has become apparent that South Korea has also been placing constraints on what is allowed to show. Because South Korea’s laws are easily accessible, this makes for an interesting case study in how Google tries to accommodate local laws in its local services without compromising the integrity of its global dataset.

The main way in which differs from is the maximum zoom level available for the satellite view of Korea, which maxes out at a far lower resolution than for the global map. On, the furthest you can zoom into Korea is this: (Click to go to these locations on the relevant maps)

On, you can zoom in a further three steps.

On Google Earth, of course, you can zoom in as far as the DigitalGlobe imagery will bear.

Why is Google’s Korean map behaving this way? In short, because of Korea’s Spatial Data Industry Promotion Act from 2009, specifically Article 7, which states that:

Spatial data business operators may produce and distribute any processed spatial data. In such cases, processed spatial data shall not include any spatial data on any military base provided for in subparagraph 1 of Article 2 of the Protection of Military Bases and Installations Act nor on any military installation provided for in subparagraph 2 of the said Article.

Article 2 of the Protection of Military Bases and Installations Act, in turn, explains that:

And considering the existence of the most heavily militarized border on the planet between North Korea and South Korea, this means a substantial part of South Korea is riddled with military installations.

By limiting the maximum resolution of its Korean imagery on, Google appears to have satisfied Korean regulators that it is obeying the relevant Korean laws. Thus, Google avoids having to blur or otherwise censor the satellite imagery base layer for Korea — something which it has successfully managed to avoid in China, India and elsewhere.

When it comes to road and point-of-interest data, the datasets for and appear to be identical translations, probably because the data is locally sourced. This would explain why large areas near the border remain unmapped, and military installations remain unlabeled. Many of these installations on both sides of the border are labeled in Google Earth by third-party contributors, however.

There is one final quirk to how Google delivers map information about Korea. When viewing satellite imagery in, you can zoom in on a highly accurate rendition of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), which indicates exactly where the front was when the armistice agreement was signed in 1953.

A far more vague MDL is depicted on and in the map view of, which is strange, considering that we can assume the North Koreans know exactly where the line is:

Google Earth also carries the vague version of the line, but additionally displaces it by around 500-1000 meters to the east.

I’m putting this down to a glitch, however. You can always load up on Korean War maps as a KMZ file for Google Earth.

How does Google’s Korean map compare to the local competitor, When zooming in on satellite imagery with Daum, at a certain point the border region becomes completely blacked out, putting Google Maps at a relative advantage there.

For satellite imagery outside of the immediate border region, however, Daum lets you zoom in far closer than on Google’s Korean map, without any further apparent limitations, though the imagery is in all likelihood censored to obfuscate military installations, something which Google has always said it is unwilling to do. Its depiction of the DML is equally vague as on

Daum also offers historical satellite imagery of South Korea in its web-based map — something which Google only offers in Google Earth — and even historical Street View imagery of Korea, which is something Google doesn’t offer anywhere (yet?).

The big picture
It is apparent (to this non-lawyer) that in containing online censorship to within the legal jurisdiction of the country making the demand, Google (and Twitter and Tumblr) are hoping to build a legal norm. Their solution may well satisfy the letter of the law, but it does not really satisfy the intent, because in the networked age locally censored content is always available uncensored on another domain, in this case also controlled by Google. It would be ridiculous, for example, for sensitive sites in India to be redacted if they remain readily visible on Google Maps in Pakistan. In the same way, it is pointless for a British court to enforce a super-injunction by only demanding that Twitter remove an offending Tweet from the UK version of the Twitter stream, considering how easy Twitter makes it to circumvent the block. (I approve, of course.)

The risk is always there, though, that a country might decide to innovate its legal approach so as to punish Google or Twitter locally for a refusal by global HQ to resort to censorship globally. It’s not unthinkable, as this recent report on extraterritorial jurisdiction from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government makes clear:

While states tend not to assert criminal jurisdiction over foreign companies directly, they do make use of a range of parent-based methods of regulation (i.e. domestic measures with extraterritorial implications) under which a parent company may be held criminally responsible for contributions to the crimes of others, including the foreign conduct of foreign actors, or failures to ensure compliance by those over which it is able to exercise control. [p.142]

There are many subtle ways a state can retaliate against local operations. Just ask Google’s Chinese operations. The one big deterrent would be the promise of a robust retaliation from the US government in terms of trade policy.

Update 20120702: Also see my follow-up post on how Apple censors satellite imagery of South Korea in its iPad Maps app.

Why do Panasonic, Leica, FujiFilm, Samsung and Nikon censor their GPS cameras?

In 2008, mainstream camera manufacturers began introducing models with built-in GPS receivers, to automatically add location metadata to photographs. Since then, 10 brands have released a total of 41 distinct models of GPS-enabled cameras. You can find most of them in DPReview’s filterable database.

When the GPS-capable Panasonic Lumix TS4 launched in early 2012, GPS Tracklog’s Rich Owings noticed a strange footnote in the press release:

GPS may not work in China or in the border regions of countries neighboring China.

Rich and I pondered aloud on Twitter as to how in-camera GPS receivers could possibly break when used in China. There is nothing wrong with GPS in China, as anyone who has successfully flown there can attest. Tens of millions of Chinese-bought iPhones have access to highly accurate latitude and longitude readings via Apple’s default compass app, which uses assisted GPS. (I just had a friend in Shanghai read me her coordinates over Skype and confirmed her position in Google Earth.) So why would Panasonic choose to hobble its GPS-enabled cameras so that the location data is withheld from users whenever that location is deemed by the firmware to be in China?

One mooted reason was a Chinese law prohibiting mapmaking and surveying without a license. Foreigners logging location coordinates via GPS while travelling near sensitive sites have been detained on these grounds. In 2010, Chinese authorities cracked down on user-generated mapping, aka neogeography, citing security risks. And in a continuing sign of this trend, just last week a prominent Chinese state TV anchor used his microblog to rail against “foreign spies who find a Chinese girl to shack up with while they make a living compiling intelligence reports, posing as tourists in order to do mapping surveys and improve GPS data for Japan, South Korea, the United States and Europe.”

A tweeted response from Panasonic PR confirmed a legal motivation for the technical restriction:

Despite follow-up questions no more information was forthcoming, beyond the suggestion that we check the manual for details.

This left many questions unanswered. Why would a Japanese manufacturer selling a camera in the US and Europe be so eager to ensure that its customers obey a (dubious) Chinese law? What is a Lumix TS4 owner supposed to do if she receives permission to log GPS coordinates in China? What happens if the law changes so that permission is no longer required? How did Panasonic end up second-guessing what customers should or should not do in China?

One possibility is that Panasonic believes its customers would sue if they got arrested for inadvertently logging location data while travelling around China. But then why not allow a manual override for informed and/or authorized users?

Perhaps Panasonic fears a near-future dystopian scenario where GPS-enabled cameras are confiscated by Chinese border guards if they are at all able to log data inside China. But surely, with an average product life-cycle of one year, that’s not a big risk?

Maybe Panasonic decided it would be too expensive to release both a China-compliant model and an unmolested global model — and so decided to just release the China-compliant model globally, having taken note of the size and growth of the Chinese consumer camera market.

Or maybe the GPS chip in the camera is manufactured in China, and thus needs to meet some kind of Chinese security restriction before it gets an export license. Admittedly, my scenarios are getting somewhat farfetched.

In the absence of good answers, I let the story languish a few months, hoping to find someone in the camera or GNSS industry able to confirm both the why and the how of the Lumix TS4′s curious behavior when inside China.

Unable to get any more clarity on the matter, I recently decided to check the manuals of all 41 models across all 10 mainstream brands, to see if others besides Panasonic admit to interfering with the GPS function of their cameras for political reasons. It turns out that five of the 10 brands do.

Panasonic, Leica and FujiFilm prevent their cameras from displaying location information when in China. Nikon and Samsung appear to restrict location information in some other way. Sony, Canon, Pentax, Casio and Olympus do not interfere with the GPS function of their cameras when in China (or at the very least do not admit to it in their manuals).

Here’s the assembled evidence — relevant excerpts from all the manuals of all the GPS-enabled cameras sold since 2008. First, the culprits:

Lumix DMC-ZS7 (Jan 2010)
Lumix DMC-ZS10 (Jan 2011)
Lumix DMC-TS3 (Jan 2011)
All these cameras’ manuals have an explanation like this:

Surprise: All three of Panasonic’s GPS-capable predecessors to the Lumix TS4 cripple GPS use inside China, ever since 2010. We only noticed in 2012 because the TS4 press release mentioned it (and no, I don’t have a habit of reading manuals of cameras I don’t own:-).

In addition, all three cameras have a ready-made error message for when the camera has decided to conceal its location: “GPS FEATURE IS NOT AVAILABLE IN THIS REGION.”

Lumix DMC-TS4 (Jan 2012)
The manual for the TS4 is not yet available on the web, but the official website makes clear about what happens to these cameras when in China:

Lumix DMC-ZS20 (Jan 2012)
Same goes for this camera:

Because Leica’s V-Lux cameras are rebranded Panasonic Lumixes, we get an opportunity to see how two different marketing departments describe the same technical limitation. Leica, it turns out, is far more articulate about how and why their cameras are crippled:

V-Lux 20 (Apr 2010) (a rebranded Lumix ZS7)

This in addition to the same error messages as on the Lumix ZS7. (So much for Panasonic trying to be coy in its manuals.)

V-Lux 30 (May 2011) (a rebranded Lumix ZS10)

V-Lux 40 (May 2012) (a rebranded Lumix ZS20)
The V-Lux 40′s manual is identical to that of the older Lumix ZS7 and ZS10 when it comes to describing GPS limitations (see above).

FinePix F550 EXR (Jan 2011)
FinePix XP30 (Jan 2011)
FinePix F600 EXR (Aug 2011)
FinePix F770 EXR (Jan 2012)
FinePix XP150 (Jan 2012)
All FinePix cameras carry this disclaimer:

Nikon seems schizophrenic about its approach to GPS:

Coolpix P6000 (Aug 2008)
One of the very first compacts on the market to have built-in GPS, this camera’s manual makes no mention of GPS restrictions or China. This is how it should be. Nikon’s GP-1 GPS unit for its DSLRs also makes no mention of restrictions.

Coolpix AW100 (Aug 2011)
Coolpix S9300 (Feb 2012)
Coolpix P510 (Feb 2012)
By 2011, however, Nikon’s cameras warn that “GPS may not function properly” in and around China:

On a Nikon website, A user shares his experience using GPS with his Coolpix AW100 in China:

The GPS in my Lumix [TZ10] camera is disabled when in China. The camera gives an information message that it disables the GPS while in China. I was pleasantly surprised that Nikon [Coolpix AW100] does not disable the GPS in China but places some limitations on its use. The locations using the GPS in China seem to be off by about 500 ft to the west. In addition, the map function does not work in China and there are not location points for China in the database. I found it interesting that while I was in Southern China, several miles from Hong Kong, the camera would like the closest location point in Hong Kong (which turned out to be a KCR metro station about 10km away. I am very glad the GPS works in China even with these limitations.

Samsung’s manuals, alas, border on the unintelligible. They are obviously transcribed from some other language:

ST1000 (Aug 2009)

HZ35W (Jan 2010)

It is not clear at all where the GPS works, nor does it make any sense to only allow cameras purchased in China to receive GPS signals in China.

Discussing the GPS performance of the Samsung HZ35W may be academic, however — DPReview’s review says that the camera’s GPS function is “idiosyncratic at best, and at worst, non-functional”, with many users not being able to get it to work at all. (Maybe because it appears to work only in a minority of countries, as per the manual.) Meanwhile, Samsung has not come out with updates to its GPS cameras for over two years.

Next up, those manufacturers who do not second-guess their customers:

Cyber-shot HX5 (Jan 2010)
SLT-A55 (Aug 2010)
Cyber-shot DSC-HX7V (Jan 2011)
Cyber-shot DSC-TX100V (Jan 2011)
Cyber-shot DSC-HX100V (Feb 2011)
Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V (Feb 2011)
SLT-A65 (Aug 2011)
SLT-A77 (Aug 2011)
Cyber-shot DSC-TX200V (Jan 2012)
Cyber-shot DSC-HX200V (Feb 2012)
Cyber-shot DSC-HX10V (Feb 2012)
Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V (Feb 2012)
Cyber-shot DSC-HX30V (Feb 2012)
None of these camera manuals reference China in any way. All manuals carry the exact same text:

PowerShot SX230 HS (Feb 2011)
PowerShot S100 (Sep 2011)
PowerShot SX260 HS (Feb 2012)
PowerShot D20 (Feb 2012)
None of these camera manuals reference China in any way. All manuals carry a version of this text:

Additionally, Canon gets points for reminding users of potential privacy issues when geotagging photos.

Optio WG-1 GPS (Feb 2011)
Optio WG-2 GPS (Feb 2012)
The GPS utilities guide for these cameras carries an identical short reference:

Exilim EX-H20G (Sep 2010)
The EX-H20G’s manual is perhaps the most straightforward of all:

Tough TG-810 (Mar 2011)

Tough TG-1 iHS (May 2012)
The manual is not up on the web yet, but the camera’s web page makes no mention of China or restrictions, and there is no reason to suspect a policy change since the TG-810.

Why does all this matter? Wherever local laws prohibit the sale or use of a personal electronics device able to perform a certain function, manufacturers have traditionally chosen not to sell the offending device in that particular jurisdiction, or — if the market is tempting enough — to sell a crippled model made especially for that jurisdiction.

For example, Nokia chose not to sell the N95 phone in Egypt when the sale of GPS-enabled devices there was illegal before 2009, whereas Apple opted to make and sell a special GPS-less iPhone 3G for that market. Early models of the Chinese iPhone 3GS lacked wifi, while the Chinese iPhone 4/4S has firmware restrictions on its Google Maps app.

The risk to consumers in freer countries is that personal electronics brands might be tempted to simplify their manufacturing processes by building just one device for the global market, catering to the lowest common denominator of freedom — especially if the more restrictive legal jurisdictions contain some of the most attractive markets, such as mainland China.

Still, in the absence of more information from Panasonic, Leica, FujiFilm, Nikon and Samsung, I can’t decisively say whether this is the business logic behind their decision to cripple the GPS in their cameras. And yet uncrippled GPS cameras from Sony and others are freely available for sale in China, for example on Taobao, China’s eBay:

And Sony’s official mainland China site is more than happy to offer instructions in Chinese on how to use the GPS function.

Consumers in the market for a GPS-enabled camera should be informed that five of the mainstream brands engage in location-based censorship. Choose another brand, or get a dedicated handheld GPS device to sync tracklogs with your camera — I don’t suspect Garmin or Magellan will stop working in China anytime soon.

Google Earth conspiracy watch — Sri Lanka war edition

When this Oregon’s Salem News article crossed my radar screen, I felt it was a sufficiently over-the-top case of conspiracy mongering so that it did not merit a retort beyond a line of snark on Twitter.

Is Google Earth Hiding Sri Lanka’s Ghosts?

Tim King

Google, are we misreading this? Haven’t Sri Lanka’s Tamils been through enough?

(SALEM) – Does Sri Lanka’s ongoing lack of transparency over its recent Genocide of Tamil people extend to Google Earth?

It’s disturbing. Google Earth appears to be be using an unusual series of photographs to comprise its image of Sri Lanka as the regime stands accused of war crimes in Geneva.

It’s a question that deserves to be asked; why is the exact area where so many were killed by government forces hard to make out, and why is that image specifically from 2005, years before the intense attacks on civilians in this area, while adjacent images are from May 2009, in the middle of the worst of the ethnic cleansing?

The number one online resource that people turn to for research should refuse censorship to any government that stands accused of grave violations of international laws regulating war, and crimes against humanity.

Etc. It goes on like that for many more paragraphs.

But then I noticed that others in my Twitter stream, people who generally know better, did not treat this story with the contempt it deserves:


So suddenly the narrative becomes: Why hasn’t Google posted satellite imagery of the endgame of the civil war in Sri Lanka on Google Earth — specifically from May 2009, when civilian refugee camps were bombarded by government troops. Is it callous negligence, or is Google somehow shielding Sri Lanka’s government from bad PR?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that satellite imagery is available in Google Earth, and has been in one way or another since June 2009.

It was first available as a downloadable overlay within weeks of the events, created by Amnesty International and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). (I know because I was involved in the production of one component of it — the aerial imagery popups.)

AAAS had asked the satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe to take these images within the framework of their Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, which puts scientific resources to use to uncover and publicize human rights abuses, specifically through the use of satellite imagery. (The program has also highlighted abuses in Zimbabwe and Darfur.)

Then, sometime between 2009 and now, these DigitalGlobe images automatically became part of the Google Earth base layer — because Google’s contract with DigitalGlobe stipulates that all imagery take by its satellites ends up in Google Earth. (There are exceptions: Iraq and Afghanistan are not being updated due to the ongoing security situation there. Imagery of Israel and the Occupied Territories is reduced in resolution, as per US law. Overcast imagery is also rejected.)

So how does Salem News’s Tim King get to pen an article in such accusatory tones? If we rule out malicious intent, the only other explanation is ignorance of how Google Earth works, coupled to a conspiratorial mindset that prejudices Google.

The imagery that Tim King thought lacking is in fact part of the historical imagery dataset in Google Earth, and can be accessed by clicking the historical imagery button in the top button bar of the application. If he were to do this over the specific area where he complains the imagery is from 2005 (view in Google Earth here), he’d see imagery from May 27 2011, January 23, 2010, September 8 2009, and June 15, 2009, in addition to 2006 and 2005. In the areas immediately to the north, he’d find imagery from May 24, 2009.

Google doesn’t alway show the most recent imagery in the default layer; sometimes there is more recent imagery available in the historical layer. This is because the default layer is meant to be a reference layer, so older imagery that is clearer will sometimes trump more recent imagery containing clouds, long shadows or snow. The satellite- and aerial imagery used by Google Earth carries metadata such as cloud cover percentages, image resolution and acquisition date, and the resulting image mosaic uses this information to construct the “best” default snapshot of Earth.

When time-sensitive satellite imagery is taken in the immediate aftermath of humanitarian crises such as the Haiti quake or Hurricane Katrina, imagery is often cloudy, because the weather does not always cooperate and cloudy imagery is better than nothing. Google will include such imagery in its dataset, but it tends not to remain in the default view for long. In any case, the default dataset is reconstructed every time Google Earth has an imagery update — these days every two weeks or so — and newer imagery tends to crowd out older.

There is one final question to address: What if Google Earth had not had this data? Would Tim King’s complaint have been justified? Is it Google’s responsibility to commission satellite imagery itself every time it suspects some humanitarian disaster is in the offing? Google promotes the work of advocacy groups in support of human rights, as evinced by the Global Awareness layers available in the sidebar of Google Earth, and it also collaborates with DigitalGlobe and GeoEye in specific cases where getting time-sensitive satellite imagery to first responders via Google Earth will help the rescue. But Google should not be in the business of vetting every cause — that is the job at which the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch excel. Much better is for Google to focus on building an ever more accurate geospatial platform for the work of of such groups. And finally: Whenever a monitoring group commissions imagery from DigitalGlobe (such as what ISIS does when it monitors Iran’s nuclear program) that imagery ends up in Google Earth automatically, over time. Any cause can play, for a few thousand dollars.

Google Earth is a powerful transparency engine — so it is best to read the manual before penning embarrassing conspiracy theories that at best are a waste of the reader’s time, and at worst succeed in subverting initiatives that Google actually deserves praise for.

Is Google showing India’s Assam state as part of China? (No.)

The border between China and India is contested in many places, and is a matter of prickly national pride for both countries — the month-long Sino-Indian War in 1962 was triggered by an escalation of a border skirmish on the northern edge of the present-day Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a large part of which China insists belongs to Tibet. In that war, China quickly advanced to its claim line on the southern edge of Himalayan foothills, where the line skirts the Brahmaputra river plain. Having met little resistance from the Indian army, China then unilaterally retreated to the pre-war line of control, approximately the McMahon Line, possibly because winter was looming. China’s claim remains, however — and the border has since been the topic of much fraught bilateral negotiation.

Not surprisingly, mapping the China-India border has proven something of a thankless task for Google. Both China and India prohibit the publication of maps that do not draw their respective official claim lines as the ground truth, so Google has created three distinct Google Maps datasets — one for the Chinese market at that shows the area north of the claim line as unambiguously Chinese, one for Indian users at that shows the border along the McMahon Line, and one reference set for the rest of the world at which shows the area as disputed; this is also the dataset used in Google Earth.

Google has on two occasions (in 2007 and in 2009) messed up its depiction of the area around Arunachal Pradesh, and each time India’s media was outraged at Google’s perceived nefarious conspiracy to undermine Indian sovereignty, when in fact the error was an honest mistake that Google quickly rectified. Still, India’s media now keeps an eagle eye on Google’s depiction of its border.

That eye once again saw cause for complaint when the the northeastern Indian local paper Seven Sisters Post this Monday ran the story — on its front page, above the fold — that Google Earth is now showing parts of the neighboring Indian state of Assam as being claimed by China:

This story was subsequently taken up by other Indian media outlets, where the headline soon read: “Google shows Assam as part of China”.

What happened? If the papers had kept to watching Google’s India-facing map dataset, they’d have nothing to complain about — it still shows India’s borders in conformity with Indian law. But Seven Sisters Post went looking on Google Earth, which shows both the Chinese and Indian claim lines for that section of the border.

That Chinese claim line is not, in fact, identical to the internal border between Arunachal Pradesh and its neighbor, Assam. In the region close to Bhutan, China has since before the 1962 war claimed an area beyond Arunachal Pradesh in Assam. Close to Burma, there is a large part of Arunachal Pradesh that China does not claim. The divergence is visible on this map:

As recently as 2009, Google Earth still showed the Chinese claim line near Bhutan as equivalent to the internal border between Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. (Note the jagged indentations of that borderline.)


That depiction was not, in fact, correct. At some point since then, possibly quite recently, a more accurate representation of the claim line was added, though at a far coarser resolution than the internal state borders or the McMahon Line that depicts India’s claim.

On the international version of Google Maps, both the internal border and the Chinese claim line are visible. Here is the map near Bhutan, with the short dotted lines depicting the Chinese claim line and the longer dotted lines the internal border between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh; the solid line is the border with Bhutan:

View Larger Map

On Google Earth, however, something is gone from the dataset: The internal border between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh is missing when it runs to the north of China’s claim line:

Screenshot from Google Earth on 13 March 2012

Why is it missing, and since when? I don’t know, but I assume the representation on Google Earth is a mistake that will soon be rectified, because Google has long argued that more — and more accurate — information in the pursuit of context is always better. Here is the relevant policy statement from December 2009:

We work to provide as much discoverable information as possible so that users can make their own judgments about geopolitical disputes. That can mean providing multiple claim lines (e.g. the Syrian and Israeli lines in the Golan Heights), multiple names (e.g. two names separated by a slash: “Londonderry / Derry”), or clickable political annotations with short descriptions of the issues (e.g. the annotation for “Arunachal Pradesh,” currently in Google Earth only [...])

This annotation makes clear that Arunachal Pradesh is wholly administered by India. I’m adding it here for the sake of completeness:

Arunachal Pradesh (Hindi: अरुणाचल प्रदेश Aruṇācal Pradeś) is administered by the Indian government as the easternmost state on India’s northeast frontier; Itanagar is the capital of the state. Meanwhile, it is also claimed by the People’s Republic of China as an integral part of its territory, as a part of South Tibet (Zangnan 藏南) and integral with the Chinese prefectures of Ngari, Shannan and Nyingchi. The dispute originates with the 1913 establishment of the McMahon Line which divided British-controlled India from Tibet; however China did not recognise the line’s authority. After India became independent in 1947 and the PRC was established with full control over Tibet, India asserted the McMahon Line as the India-China boundary in 1951 and forced Tibetan authorities to withdraw from the area. During the Sino-Indian war of 1962, China recaptured most of Arunachal Pradesh (then called the North East Frontier Agency or NEFA) but voluntarily withdrew back to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in 1963 which approximates the McMahon Line’s location. Indian and Chinese forces clashed in the region in 1986-87, but the countries signed agreements in 1993 and 1996 to respect the LAC. Despite several attempts to reconcile, including discussions as recent as January 2008, India and China remain in dispute over this territory.

How do other online maps fare? OpenStreetMap draws the International border as India would have it, with no sign of China’s claim line. Microsoft’s Bing Maps, on the other hand, has China claiming a much larger area than on Google Maps, with the claim line even crossing the Brahmaputra river at one point:

(Note, you need to zoom in to see this border. if you zoom out, the map reverts to a more vague border that approximates the internal border between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.)

In addition to showing the border between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, could Google Earth be even more complete in its depiction of the region? Yes, by drawing an orange Line of Control between China and India along the McMahon Line, just as it does for the de facto border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. This would make it clearer that the region is administered by India, which matters, as possession is a great advantage in territorial disputes.

Notes on the political, social and scientific impact of networked digital maps and geospatial imagery, with a special focus on Google Earth.