Boston Unblurred: Debunking the Google Maps Censorship Myth

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3. Research reactor, Radiation Laboratory, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, MA.
Research reactor, U Mass Lowell
4. Oil tank farm in Braintree, MA.
Tank farm, Braintree, MA
5. Liquid natural gas terminal and industrial port area, Everett and Chelsea, MA.
LNG Terminal, Everett, MA
6. MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Lexington, MA.
MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Lexington, MA

I am not a photo-reconaissance expert, but none of these locations look any less detailed to me than the surrounding areas. The locations of buildings and other details are clearly visible in each location. The light-colored areas in some of the photographs look overexposed, especially in the PAVE PAWS and Seabrook images, but that’s a question of camera adjustments, not resolution.

I suppose it’s possible that after the IT Security article came out, Google replaced the allegedly blurred images of the six Boston-area locations mentioned with sharper ones. But lax fact-checking is a more likely explanation. Many of the sites listed in the IT Security article are also listed in a Wikipedia article that has been flagged by Wikipedia’s own editors as lacking in reliable, third-party confirmation. Given that the Wikipedia article was created in April 2007, it seems likely that the authors of the IT Security article were simply cribbing their list from the community-edited site.

And before anyone gets too worked up about confirmed examples of image manipulation like Basra and the Naval Observatory, it’s worth remembering a few things. First of all, it’s only in the last decade that the public has had easy access to high-resolution aerial and satellite photos, thanks to the work of private satellite-imaging companies such as DigitalGlobe and GeoEye and search companies like Mapquest, Google, and Yahoo. Also, the data is shared online at such a reasonable cost—nothing—that there isn’t much room for complaints about inconsistencies or shoddy service. Furthermore, if a location is pixelated on Google’s maps, you can often find a sharper version simply by going to Yahoo, or vice versa. If there’s a conspiracy here, it’s a pretty poor one.

Even in cases where images have been deliberately degraded, it’s a stretch to cry censorship, at least from a constitutional perspective. Sensitive goespatial data collected by the government is exempt by law from Freedom-of-Information-Act requests. As for privately collected satellite images, I haven’t done a thorough search, but I’m not aware of case law establishing that they’re protected by the First Amendment. And whatever your view of the Bush Administration’s record on free speech, you can probably agree that there are national-security reasons for limiting access to high-resolution images of certain locations.

So let’s be realistic. Even if a few military or industrial sites are hard to see on Google Maps—and it would appear that such cases are much rarer than some outlets report—there are far worse violations of intellectual freedom to worry about. (As this cuddly cartoon about warrantless wiretapping might remind you.)

Addendum, February 11, 2009: Now that Dick “Undisclosed Location” Cheney is no longer Vice President, someone has apparently decided that it’s okay for people to see unvarnished views of the U.S. Naval Observatory. In today’s edition of “The Sightseer,” Google’s e-mail newsletter about Google Earth, the company writes: “On January 18, two days before Barack Obama was sworn in as our 44th president, we pushed out an imagery update for the Washington, DC area including the National Mall area. Much of the new imagery is from 2008. Part of the new imagery shows clearer imagery to the US Naval Observatory.”

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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