Basra: New Daily Telegraph article has no clue

A week after it was first reported here, The Daily Telegraph had the news today that Google has replaced its satellite imagery of Basra from September 2004 with imagery from July 2002. Of course, it didn’t report it like that. Much of the article is either presumptive, tendentious, inaccurate or unsourced.

Google blots out Iraq bases on internet
By Thomas Harding, Defence Correspondent
Last Updated: 2:07am GMT 20/01/2007

British military bases in Iraq have been “blotted” out from Google Earth maps at the request of the Government to hinder terrorist attacks, it can be revealed.

  • I’d have preferred it if Google had actually “blotted out” the bases. That’s how the Dutch censor their sensitive sites — it maintains one’s confidence in the rest of the dataset. Instead, Google replaced newer imagery of Basra with older imagery; it has yet to admit officially that it did this, by the way, or explain the rationale for doing so now and not in other situations.
  • The Telegraph’s “it can be revealed” is ridiculous. Had the paper started up Google Earth and looked at Basra a week ago, it could have reported that the bases were missing then. It didn’t. The internet did all the work, but admitting as much is something the paper is clearly incapable of. (If it does have independent confirmation of an agreement between the UK and Google, it is unsourced — there is not even a “sources say”, it is merely stated as fact.)
  • Caring about the moral gradiations between terror attacks on civilians and guerilla attacks on military bases is supposed to be what differentiates “us” from “them”. The Daily Telegraph conflated the two notions in last week’s article, “Terrorists ‘use Google maps to hit UK troops’” and continues to do so in this article.

Sensitive installations such as the Trident nuclear submarine pens in Faslane, Scotland, and the eavesdropping base at GCHQ Cheltenham have also been obscured, a search of the site shows. […]

Research by The Daily Telegraph has provided some interesting images. In addition to Faslane and GCHQ the entire aerial footage of Hereford, home to the SAS, has been fuzzed out. But the Special Forces Support Group headquarters, which provide additional troops for the SAS, in St Athan, Wales, is shown vividly with airstrip and barracks. Similarly, pictures of the Royal Navy base in Portsmouth show with some clarity aircraft carriers, frigates and destroyers in the harbour.

Other clearly visible sites that could be useful to terrorists include MI6 headquarters in London.


  • Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I can’t believe that Harding simply zoomed in on a couple of military installations in the UK and listed the ones that weren’t in high resolution as having been “obscured”. (There is not even a modifying “apparently”.) Cheltenham GCHQ and all of Cheltenham, like other large swathes of the UK, are still in low resolution. No Google Earth Community placemarks in the area hint at having been made on top of high resolution imagery that is no longer available. (In nearby Gloucester, which does have high resolution imagery, you do find such placemarks.) You can do the same exercise for Hereford.
  • Saying that the Trident submarine base northwest of Glasgow has been “obscured” is just plain embarrassing: Most of it is in fact visible, as it lies just on the edge of a high resolution tile. Also, the imagery has looked like that since at least August 2005, as this comment on GEC reveals.

Google was first alerted to the security breaches after personnel at the British headquarters at Basra Air Station in Iraq were astonished at the clarity with which all their positions were shown on the popular internet site. […]

Following negotiations, Google agreed to blot out British bases in Iraq after the company was persuaded they would be helpful to terrorists.

But it was not done early enough to stop insurgents obtaining copies of the pictures which, with the longitude and latitude given, help them co-ordinate mortar and rocket attacks.

As revealed in The Daily Telegraph last week, an insurgent arrested by British troops in Basra was found with a Google Earth map of the Shatt Al Arab base, home for 1,000 soldiers.

  • The above paragraphs are the only potentially new piece of information in the article, if it is in fact based on sourced information and not inferred from a vague statement by Google that it had “opened channels of communication with the military in Iraq.”
  • If true, then Google had agreed to replace the more recent imagery of Basra with older imagery before the insurgent with the print-out was arrested last week. That would imply that the imagery switch had been made earlier than the previous week. Considering how everything else in this article is so shoddily reported, however, I just don’t know how much credence I can lend this information.

Not that any of the above will make much difference. The internet and old media are both already busily repeating without verifying that Google “blotted out” bases in the UK as well.

5 thoughts on “Basra: New Daily Telegraph article has no clue”

  1. Yeah I live very close to GCHQ and after reading the article thought ‘wow google must finally have Cheltenham in high res’, of course I loaded gmaps and found the same old 15m panshapened Landsat 7 imagery, and no ‘burring’. I wish the press researched as well as you, they could learn a lot from your recent blog posts.

  2. About using older dataset. G.E. has also reverted to an older set of Calgary, Alberta. You can see it with the missing recent additions at the “Talisman Centre” (aka. Lindsay Park). As far as I know, there is no insurgency nor sensitive military stuff going on around there.

  3. With reference to GCHQ and Stirling Lines (SAS HQ) these are visible in relatively high-res on Windows Live Local

  4. I just looked on google maps, and i idly clicked on hybrid whilst on a map of my home town of cheltenham, expecting the usual low-res image.

    I have no idea when but google maps (and i suppose google earth) now has hi-res shots of cheltenham, and in all it’s hi-def glory, the doughnut.

    Not sure if this is a good thing (for the free people) or a bad thing (grrr evil baddies with missiles in their beards…?)

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