SF Chronicle on Google Earth and India, Israel imagery

It’s remarkable how bad reporting, unchallenged, can become assumed true, eventually requiring an official denial in a national paper.

Witness the case of the 8-month old piece of nationalist-patriotic wish-thinking masquerading as an article in the Times of India: Google Earth agrees to blur pix of key Indian sites. For some reason it surfaced in again a few weeks ago in an RSS feed for a news search for “Google Earth”, probably due to a misfired ping or somesuch.

When I read it, I had a sense of deja vu, and then saw the date: February 4, 2007. It turns out I had done a hatchet job on the article then that turned out to be accurate. Every subsequent data update has seen more and better imagery of India, not less — which a quick visual check of the most obvious “senstitive” Indian sites can confirm.

But this didn’t stop the popular blog Gridskipper from including the Times of India article as recent news in a post dated October 8 about censorship in Google Earth.

(Additionally, Gridskipper completely fails to grasp why some imagery is censored in Google Earth. Google buys imagery from providers. These providers are sometimes required by law to censor their imagery. Google isn’t required to buy censored imagery from these providers, but sometimes such imagery is cheap/free and/or “good enough”; over time, censored imagery has generally been replaced with uncensored imagery. The only documented exception to date: Basra, where post-war resolution imagery was replaced with pre-war imagery by Google at the request of allied forces there. In any case, the Gridskipper article does Google a disservice by attributing far more preëmption to the company regarding censorship, when in fact it has only actively censored once (and it was once too many).)

Gridskipper’s uncritical link to that Times of India article subsequently appears to have caught the eye of Matthew Kalman at the San Francisco Chronicle, who on Oct. 10 wrote a substantive article primarily concerned with the new satellite imagery of Israel. Kalman gets a Google spokesman to categorically deny that Indian imagery had been blurred:

Griffiths also denied reports that Google images of India were deliberately blurred or distorted to protect security installations in that country.

“Google does not intentionally degrade or distort image quality. However, we use the imagery that comes to us from our data suppliers, some of which includes clearly blurred or degraded imagery. For example, an airbase in the Netherlands, the vice president’s residence in Washington, D.C.,” she said.

Nul points, then, to Gridskipper and the Times of India, but kudos to the San Francisco Chronicle, not just for setting the record straight, but also for finding a voice of reason to counterbalance the hysterics in the previously linked Yediot Ahronot article, where opinionator Alex Fishman calls Google Earth “pure gold for terrorists”. Writes Kalman:

But Professor Gerald Steinberg, chairman of the political science department at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, disagrees. He says Israel has been prepared for the new Google Earth images, which he says do not endanger Israel’s security.

“Israel has had 10 years to prepare for this,” said Steinberg, who helped draft an agreement with the United States limiting satellite resolution imagery. “It was the Clinton administration’s policy to make available high-resolution imaging. Israel was granted a cushion which for clear security reasons does not put all the available information on the Internet.

“The satellite pictures were available before now to anyone with a few thousand dollars. They are not real-time pictures, and they were not taken yesterday. I don’t think this is a major change in security.”

Steinberg is clearly referring to the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, just recently blogged here. I wonder if Steinberg is implying that the amendment’s purpose has been served, and that we can now revoke it?

My only major peeve with the SF article is this: What’s up with the use of yards as a unit measure? Even worse, what’s up with 2-meters per pixel resolution turning into “one pixel per 2.4 square yards”? That should read “one pixel per 2.2 yards”, or else “one pixel per 2.2 yards squared”, or else “one pixel per 4.8 square yards”. Innumeracy has a habit of undermining arguments.

4 thoughts on “SF Chronicle on Google Earth and India, Israel imagery”

  1. Stefan….so if it’s bad for Google to censor imagery/information in GE.

    Then what happens when Google censors in other areas of their company? Like, YouTube and news feeds, a few right leaning people and organizations claim they have been censored.

    Is that ok? Or is that a different beast? Shouldn’t the same philosophy be applied across the board?

    What’s good for a goose is good for the gaggle.


  2. Whenever Google has censored YouTube content to placate governments with chips on their shoulder (Turkey, Thailand come to mind) I’ve mentioned it here on Ogle Earth, even if it is off-topic, strictly speaking. That’s because a precedent for censorship in one part of the company could bleed over to another part.

    That said, only the Turks and the Vietnamese suffer from this kind of localized YouTube censorship — the rest of us can still see the offensive clips. Same goes for Nazi memorabilia in France. In all these cases it is about Google tuning its content to satisfy local laws.

    Censorship of Google Earth’s base layer would be a different beast, as there is just one such layer. It’s unlikely that there will ever be an especially censored layer for Indians, for example — and it would be spectacularly ineffective:-)

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