Boston Unblurred: Debunking the Google Maps Censorship Myth

9/26/08Follow @wroush

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 Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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  • Michael
  • Enrique
  • Gump

    I think you’ll find that the image of the White House is inaccurate. I’ve been there, I know what’s up on the roof, and this image is inaccurate. Either it’s older or it’s doctored.

    It’s a shame any of this is happening, but I also appreciate the necessity, given the psychos we have abroad.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Enrique, what I wrote was that not one of the six Boston-area locations mentioned in the IT Security list appears to be obscured. There may be other locations, such as the Dutch airbase, that are blurred out — but the real point is that in most if not all of these cases, the imagery has been modified by the companies and agencies that sell the data to Google, not by Google itself.

  • Ousted

    The US Naval Observatory comes up fine on Zillow

  • Brian

    In the cases of the Dutch locations (NC3A, airbases, etc), the imagery is actually provided by the Dutch goverment – and blurred by them.

    Had that conversation with a Dutch co-worker while standing in Den Haag last year.

  • Michael

    I work at one of the sites you listed and it most definitely was obscured as of less than a month ago. It looks like Google recently replaced the imagery for a large part of the state within the last week or two (Boston included). The article was not wrong, you were just really lucky with your timing.

  • Nick

    While you can definitely get view from above via Google Earth/Maps and MS Live Search of the natural gas terminal in Chelsea, MA – MS Live Search disabled the “Bird’s Eye” functionality for that natural gas terminal. Its enabled everywhere around it in the area.

    I imagine it would be because the bird’s eye would give much more detailed images that provide depth.

  • Matthias

    A year ago, the PAVE PAWS site had a clear, good image. Then a few months ago it was clearly blurred in a circular pattern covering the area out to the perimeter road. It has been replaced with an highly overexposed, possibly dated image — other structures in the same area don’t have the same “camera settings.”

  • Garrett

    I have to 2nd Michael’s comment.

    I work very close to one of the Massachusetts locations and up until very recently it has been blurred out. I was pleasently surprised just last week to see that a new clear picture was posted.

    It appears this author did his fact checking just a couple of weeks too late.

  • anonymous

    “I also appreciate the necessity, given the psychos we have abroad”

    Say, you’re not from the US are you?

  • Pierre

    NEWS FLASH

    Wade Roush is an idiot! Many of those locations ARE in fact reduced resolution.

    See slashdot comments on this story.

    Example: http://maps.google.com/maps?t=k&q=52.109911,4.326597&ie=UTF8&ll=52.109912,4.326596&spn=0.00456,0.009549&z=17&iwloc=addr

  • Iain

    Re: Enrique’s image from the Netherlands, click Zoom Out. They’ve quite clearly provided a stained-glass filter on the high-res images, but you can see more detail if you zoom out a bit on Google Maps to see the next lower resolution map layer, because that one is unfiltered.

  • Elmer

    Wrongo.

    I am a frequent user of Google Earth and Google Maps.

    The areas pointed out are definitely blurred or are reduced resolution.

    From memory, the amusement park in NY, the train station somewhere in the Northeast US, are definitely two that are blurred more than the capable resolution would let you see.

  • http://www.loerakker.org Richard Loerakker
  • John

    Picture resolution aside, the reactor at UMass Lowell (#3) isn’t in New Hampshire…it in Massachusettes…it’s UMASS after all…

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @John: Thanks, I’ve fixed the “Lowell, NH” typo.

    @Pierre, @Richard, and others: Once again, what I wrote was the six Boston-area locations mentioned in the IT Security list don’t look to me like they’re obscured. There are places like the Dutch airbases that are indisputably blurred, but that was done by the organizations that sell images to Google.

  • Glenn

    There is an obscure US law requiring a license to take images from space for any US based entity. It dates back before the current administration and gives licensing authority to NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration). So even if the company is private, there are some level of government control.

  • ah
  • Pingback: Debunking the Google Earth Censorship Myth | Kaizenlog

  • Neo
  • tim

    Seabrook used to be pixilated, it looks like google maps got updated. Who would have thought.

  • Brian

    I’d like to second Michael’s comment above. Not only was MIT obscured but the AF Electronic Systems Command was as well on Hanscom AFB. Odd though that the AF Research Lab on the same base was not… It’s nice to see all the pixels in place now.

  • tad

    Apparently damn near every bridge north of Manhattan is a super-secret terrorist target. Like places north of the train station in Ossining.

    The author doesn’t appear to have done much research, as I keep stumbling upon blurred places in Google Maps as I am house hunting.

    MS Live Earth, on the other hand, works great!

  • ted

    Google Earth resolution has been reduced or maybe unknowen to me, I changed some settings. Why do I think so? When I zoom down on my house, I DO NOT have the same clarity I did last year (Dec, 2008). I could obtain close to accurate distance measurements, but now there is more guessing as to start and end points. If YOU start G.E. and zoom in to the initial center start point (Regency Pl. Lawrence, KS.)the resolution is not as good as it was last year. It is possible I changed a setting. Of course if everyone begins to think their images are a little more blurry, maybe Google changed something.

  • Brain

    At one point in time, the image of PAVE PAWS on Cape Cod was indeed blurred. I live on Cape Cod and deer hunt on the base. While using Google Earth to get terrain information before one hunting season I looked at the PAVE PAWS sight. The blurring followed the circular fence line and took the resolution down low enough that you could not count the cars in the parking area.