My newsreader is filling up with references to this story in the UK’s Daily Telegraph:
By Thomas Harding in Basra
Terrorists attacking British bases in Basra are using aerial footage displayed by the Google Earth internet tool to pinpoint their attacks, say Army intelligence sources.
Documents seized during raids on the homes of insurgents last week uncovered print-outs from photographs taken from Google.
The satellite photographs show in detail the buildings inside the bases and vulnerable areas such as tented accommodation, lavatory blocks and where lightly armoured Land Rovers are parked.
Written on the back of one set of photographs taken of the Shatt al Arab Hotel, headquarters for the 1,000 men of the Staffordshire Regiment battle group, officers found the camp’s precise longitude and latitude.
I went looking for the Shatt al Arab Hotel mentioned in the article, and found it, but saw no tents or tanks. Even stranger, Google Earth Community placemarks for Basra alluding to craters and tanks instead show remarkably intact buildings and roads. I began to think that the imagery we are currently getting for Basra is older than it used to be.
This suspicion proved correct. Here’s a comparison of what the imagery of Shatt al Arab camp looked like before/after a recent imagery update:
Click to enlarge
Currently, images in Google Earth of Basra are from 2002, months before war. Up until a recent update, the images were likely from late 2004 and/or 2005. You can tell by engaging in a little forensic mapping, using Google Earth’s built-in “Digital Globe Coverage” layer (which provides dates for its imagery), the Google Tile Comparison tool (which shows you what previous datasets looked like) and also with a little help from Google Earth Community.
For example, here is a placemark created on January 2006 depicting a crater at the former Baath Party headquarters, . If you look now, you see no crater. If you looked in January 2006, you did see a crater:
Google Earth now:
Google Maps/Earth, earlier and now:
Click to enlarge
You can tell that the current imagery of Basra in Google Earth is from before the war by zooming out a bit and then turning on the “Digital Globe Coverage” layers. You’ll notice that the rectangular outline of the square over Northern Basra matches this image exactly, taken on November 24, 2002:
You can do the same for the rest of Basra.
When was the imagery taken that was visible at the time the placemark for the crater was made? By correlating the colored rectangles of the “Digital Globe Coverage” layer with the older dataset via the Google Tile comparison tool, you can see that before the update, most of Northern Basra is covered by this image, taken on September 28, 2004. Basra itself has yet another, cropped image overlaid on top of the one dated September 28, 2004 — and I am assuming that it is more recent, because that is the usual motivation for updating imagery.
All this raises a few questions:
1. Did Google replace newer imagery with older imagery at the request of the coalition forces in Basra? The article hints at it:
A Google spokesman said the information could be used for “good and bad” and was available to the public in many forms. “Of course we are always ready to listen to governments’ requests,” he said.
“We have opened channels with the military in Iraq but we are not prepared to discuss what we have discussed with them. But we do listen and we are sensitive to requests.”
Still, the article says the offending printouts were found “last week”. That would imply a very recent update.
3. If this imagery was replaced by Google at the request of the coalition forces, doesn’t this rather undermine the arguments made by Google to other governments explaining why it won’t censor imagery at their request? You know, arguments such as that the imagery is a few years old, that it requires context to be useful, that it is freely available on the web, that anyone can purchase more recent imagery on the web, and that all technology is a two-edged sword — just look at cellphone detonators for bombs, cars driven by suicide bombers, GPS devices for targeting…
Finally, some other paragraphs from the article were just begging for commentary:
The British security services are concerned that terrorists will be able to examine in detail sensitive infrastructure such as electricity stations, military basis [sic], and their own headquarters in London.
Sneaky segue, that. Should everyone be censoring bits of London too, then? I see a slippery slope ahead. And then there is this nugget:
Soldiers from the Royal Green Jackets based at the Basra Palace base said they had considered suing Google Earth if they were injured by mortar rounds that had been directed on the camp by the aerial footage.
Clearly these boys aren’t Britain’s finest legal minds. Perhaps they’d also consider suing the mortar manufacturers?
[PS. this is not the first time Google Earth has been used in asynchronous warfare — they also had a go in Yemen, as reported here in October 2006.]
[Update 2007-1-18: The story unfolds thus:
Jan 16: Fixing Basra: Turns out you can still buy the imagery online via the DigitalGlobe Online Store.
Jan 18: DigitalGlobe removes Basra imagery from online store: This confirms the image is actively being removed from public access.]