Boston Unblurred: Debunking the Google Maps Censorship Myth

Having written an appreciative column a few weeks ago about the endangered Pacific Northwest tree octopus, a tongue-in-cheek hoax site, I am not about to denounce the Internet as a cesspool of misinformation. But I’m still puzzled by the way certain salacious memes persist on the Internet, even though they’re easily disproved—for example, the myth often repeated in e-mail chain letters that Barack Obama is secretly a practicing Muslim (the most discouraging element here, of course, being that anyone cares).

Another meme that keeps popping up and that deserves to be discounted once and for all is the idea that Google widely and deliberately censors aerial and satellite imagery at the behest of governments and other organizations. This idea was reinvigorated most recently by a July IT Security feature article called “Blurred Out: 51 Things You Aren’t Allowed to See on Google Maps.” The article, which was picked up by Digg and widely republished, was of special interest to readers in Boston, since six out of the 51 locations were in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. But as one of my favorite bloggers, Stefan Geens, pointed out on his Ogle Earth blog a couple of weeks ago, there’s only one case out of the 51 purported examples of “blurring out” where it can be verified that Google itself modified an image; it was in Basra, Iraq, where imagery showing bomb damage and military construction was replaced by older pictures, taken before the Second Gulf War. Geens’ post prompted me to look into the Boston-area locations listed in the IT Security article, and as I illustrate below, the reports of alleged blurring appear to be completely spurious.

U.S. Naval Observatory grounds, Washington, DCThat’s not to say that the all of the images in Google Maps and Google Earth are as detailed as they could be. As Google has acknowledged in the past, there are spots, such as the U.S. Naval Observatory—home for another 116 days to Vice President Dick Cheney—that have been deliberately blurred or pixelated by the companies that sell aerial imagery to Google. (See image at left. You can click on this image and all of the images in this article to see larger versions.)

Presumably, the companies do this to make life a little harder for terrorists who might be planning an airborne attack. Interestingly, though, the White House and the Capitol building are crystal-clear in Google Earth’s images. (I admit to some curiosity about who decided that Cheney’s house was more worthy of obscuration than President Bush’s. If you’re interested, there’s a long discussion of that particular question over at Wired‘s Danger Room national security blog.) Since Google doesn’t own its own fleet of satellites, its only recourse in these cases of deliberate pixelation is to buy more imagery from other sources, which it sometimes does.

Wasilla, AlaskaMore often, though, allegations that certain areas are “off-limits” in Google Earth are just wrong. One rumor making its way around the Web right now is that Google blurred out images of Wasilla, AK, after Alaska governor and former Wasilla mayor Sarah Palin was named John McCain’s running mate. If you look up Wasilla in Google Earth (or examine the screen grab at right), you’ll see that Google’s images of the Anchorage suburb are indeed blurry—but only for the northern half. Google is constantly updating its imagery, and for many areas it doesn’t yet have the kind of super-clear pictures where you can see individual houses, cars, and even the shadows of people (or cows). Wasilla is just one of the many places in Google Earth where old and new datasets are juxtaposed.

No such excuse is available, however, for the writers of the IT Security article. I remember reading the article’s provocative introduction when it first came out: “Whether it’s due to government restrictions, personal-privacy lawsuits or mistakes, Google Maps has slapped a ‘Prohibited’ sign on the following 51 places,” it said. And I remember being surprised that so many of the spots listed were in and around Boston.

But upon examining those six locations in Google Maps and Google Earth, I can see absolutely no sign of the alleged blurring. Here are Google Earth screenshots of the listed locations:

1. PAVE PAWS, a missile-warning and space surveillance radar maintained by the U.S. Air Force Space Command in Cape Cod, MA.
PAVE PAWS radar installation, Cape Cod, MA
2. Seabrook Nuclear Power Station, Seabrook, NH.
Seabrook Nuclear Power Station, Seabrook, NH

Click on “next page” to continue

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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