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Google Blurring Sensitive Map Information 411

Cyphoid writes "While viewing my school (the University of Massachusetts Lowell) with Google Maps, I noticed that a select portion of the campus was pixelated: the operational nuclear research facility on campus. Curious, I attempted to view the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It too was pixelated. What or who is compelling Google to smudge out these images selectively? Will all satellite images of facilities that the government deems 'sensitive' soon be subject to censoring?" Not surprisingly, the same areas are blurred in Google Earth. But how about images from satellites operated by other nations, such as SPOT or Sovinformsputnik?
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Google Blurring Sensitive Map Information

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  • MassGIS (Score:5, Informative)

    by pHZero ( 790342 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @05:31PM (#17792168) Homepage
    Google Maps gets the Massachusetts aerial photos from MassGIS []

    I believe you will find they are the blurring culprits if you download the latest aerial photos done by a 2005 fly by.
    • Re:MassGIS (Score:5, Informative)

      by markb ( 6556 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @05:49PM (#17792362) Journal
      You're right. I don't think Google is the one censoring the photos. For a counter example, check out the photos of the White House on Google Maps and Microsoft Virtual Earth ( Google's images (from a private source) do not appear to be censored, but Microsoft's (from the USGS, I believe) are heavily edited.
    • Re:MassGIS (Score:4, Informative)

      by novus ordo ( 843883 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @06:17PM (#17792614) Journal
      Google surely [] wouldn't censor it's maps on request by an interested party.
    • I agree. Since Google gets the images from various data sources, the quality of the data will differ. Some vendors obscure the images of sensitive sites, others do not.

      Not sure who provides the data for other areas, but I have used Google Maps and Google Earth to locate several 'sensitive' structures, such as Diablo Nuclear Power Plant [] in California, Vandenberg Air Force Base, etc.

      For me, it's a cool feature since I grew up in the area, visited the Nuclear Power Plant while in elementary school, got special
      • Look what someone's done to the Sellafields [] nuclear plant in the UK! They've blurred all of the surroundings as well - presumably to stop you from navigating there by landmark.
  • Great (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @05:33PM (#17792196)
    Now it's even easier to pick out nice fat targets.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Zarel ( 900479 )
      What I don't understand is why they do this. They're blurring out the roof of the building. If terrorists want to do something with a building, like bomb it, being able to see a roof and being able to see a blurred roof isn't going to make any difference. If they want to infiltrate the building, the roof shape isn't going to help them much, and you can see the roof shape from the blurred version, anyway. So the blurring doesn't do anything except alert terrorists that there's something that probably should
      • Re:Great (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Yvanhoe ( 564877 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @05:50PM (#17792376) Journal
        With the maximum resolution you can find enough information to plan escape routes, locate access stairs, maintenance hatches, and maybe in the case of a nuclear facility (I only speculate, I am no expert on this) locate the storage facilities of crucial and/or dangerous materials. So yes, it can help. Of course this shouldn't be the only measure taken and the blurring should only be a temporary measure taken to give time to correct any flaw that may become apparent on what used to be military-grade satellite imagery.
      • details for you (Score:5, Informative)

        by r00t ( 33219 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @06:30PM (#17792734) Journal
        This thing probably got caught up in a general order to obscure ALL nuclear plants.

        It's a really lame little plant, with barely any fuel. The white thing is a metal containment dome, attached to a 3-story or 4-story research building. It's about 4 stories tall. They give tours; you can look down into a pool of water to see the glowing blue core. It's called the Pinanski Energy Center.

        Attacking this plant would do nothing of any real interest, though some idiots would surely freak out. The radiation source is deep below ground and really weak.

        Most of the obscured area is just a parking lot. The research building extends to the northwest of the white reactor; they are attached. The area to the southwest is a parking lot for that building and the adjacent ones. The area to the northeast is a parking lot for the gym, which you can see with the white rectangle on the roof. The farthest west obscured area is a pedestrian overpass at the 3rd-floor level that runs between two unrelated buildings, the physics building (north) and engineering building (south). Most everything in the area is 4-story.

        There are far more interesting things on campus that a person could attack, starting with the dorms!

        You can find pictures on the web, including a lame attack by ABC news. [] services/north_campus/pinanski_hall.html [] d=988778 []
    • I wonder if it would be possible to detect the blurring signal computationally. One could write a 'sensitive location' detector that could zip through image archives. Humm...
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by csimicah ( 592121 )
      Assuming just for a second that 'the terrorists' have no better way to find the location of nuke plants than by scrolling google maps looking for pixels; what exactly are we worried they're going to do with this information, that they couldn't do without it? Drive to the plant and give it a threatening look? Jump in their bomber fleet and drop daisy cutters?
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      > Now it's even easier to pick out nice fat targets

      Who gets to pixelate the images and what ensures that they aren't mailing the originals to South American freedom fighters?

      I'm sure the person who gets to pixelate the images has a security clearance. That doesn't guarantee anything except that a particular social circle has access to information that the rest of us don't. What they do with that information is, well, best left to the imagination.

      I for one know first-hand how easy it is for those with s
    • They'll be having a field day with Svalbard, then.
    • by rworne ( 538610 )
      Well, it appears California isn't worth protecting.

      Here [] is The San Onofre Nuke Plant in all it's high-rez glory.
    • Re:Great (Score:4, Funny)

      by speculatrix ( 678524 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @07:18PM (#17793090)
      the difference between civil engineers and electronic engineers? the former built targets, the latter missiles.
  • by erroneus ( 253617 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @05:36PM (#17792216) Homepage
    C'mon! Now if you didn't know what you were looking at before, now you know there's a target of interest there.

    • by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @05:40PM (#17792256) Journal
      C'mon! Now if you didn't know what you were looking at before, now you know there's a target of interest there.

      It brings up an interesting point. Now terrorists can use an algorithm to look for fuzzy areas, and will know they are of interest. If you want Al Quida to nail your enemy, then just put a fuzzy tarp on his/her roof.
      • They're going to be hard-pressed for time, considering how much of the earth is still in such low resolution in Google Earth and the like. Based on that information, everything outside of a few, major metropolitan centers will show up as a prime target, and as for the cities themselves, they already *knew* to bomb those.
      • Scan the French Riviera and look at the blurs. Why? The Cap D'Agde is one of the most famous nudist places in Europe. Don't want to violate some noodist's privacy now, do we? The places where some of the pixellation occurs has nothing to do with 'interest'. There's sloppiness, high reflection, and likely a lot of simple stupidity and sloth that prevents some places from coming up all nice and tidy down to the shoe-lace level.
    • by garcia ( 6573 )
      C'mon! Now if you didn't know what you were looking at before, now you know there's a target of interest there.

      Like they wouldn't have known anyway. Someone who is researching the location of nuclear power plants would not need sat photos to find them. Even if they did, what the fuck is the difference if you can't see them at crappy resolution? They probably offer a tour and someone arriving there would do a fuckload more damage than someone looking at map online.
  • by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @05:36PM (#17792222) Journal
    It is *not* an editing artifact; Fuzzy Blob Bacteria (Fuziblobicia Bacterius) has been eating structures all over the world. I think it was even what ruined a banana and avacado that I had on the shelf. It even ate parts of my house. Termites, my ass.
  • by macadamia_harold ( 947445 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @05:36PM (#17792230) Homepage
    Curious, I attempted to view the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It too was pixelated.

    Have you ever been there? That's how it looks! I think they built it out of Lego.
  • by xetovss ( 17621 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @05:39PM (#17792236) Journal
    Taking a look at another nuclear power plant, the one in Byron, IL its nice and unblured according to Google,+il& ie=UTF8&z=16&ll=42.073969,-89.280159&spn=0.012153, 0.029526&t=h&om=1&iwloc=addr [] so I dunno whats with the guys out in Taxachusetts, err rather Massachusetts but Illinois seems just fine with having their power plants on display throughout the whole world. Heck even this little patch of desert is nice and unblurred =UTF8&z=14&ll=37.228688,-115.804482&spn=0.052144,0 .118103&t=h&om=1 [] so bugger all I dunno. Both are from Google and both are nicely unblurred. - XSS
    • Same thing with all the nuclear plants near here (three are non-blurred. It's gotta be like the guy said above; it depends on where Google is getting the satellite imagery.
  • Doesn't this seem a little stupid? It's like a terrorist's shopping list. Grab Google and zoom around the map. Mark blurred areas on map. Bomb area. Presto!
    • by g-san ( 93038 )
      Yeah I can see it now. Gitmo hopeful A is bored one night, starts armchair touring the world with Google Earth, sees a pixelated area and calls up Osama. All good plots start that way.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by YrWrstNtmr ( 564987 )
      It's like a terrorist's shopping list. Grab Google and zoom around the map. Mark blurred areas on map. Bomb area.

      So they know that there is 'something' under that blur that might be vulnerable. How to attack? No idea. The thing is.."terrorists" are not much good at bombing at any distance. Even a couple hundred yards is problematic. That requires more equipment than can be hidden under a coat.

      So...deny them easily accessible photo intel (Google Earth), and force them to actually come to the location to r
      • Re:Dumb (Score:4, Insightful)

        by houghi ( 78078 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @06:47PM (#17792888)

        So...deny them easily accessible photo intel (Google Earth), and force them to actually come to the location to recon. Where they might be noticed and hopefully stopped.
        So basicaly you say that security through obscurity is a good thing.

        I am just curious how many terrorist attacs are done with the help of Google Earth. And even IF it would work as stated, it would only divert the attack to a different place. Just like a good lock on your door will prevent a burgelary in your house, yet is does not prevent the robber going to your neighbours house.

        I wonder what will happen if somebody still blows up the place. Will it be obvious that blurring does not work, or will the blurring be extended to schools in general to protect the children because of terrorism? Well, not so much wonder as be afraid of the answer.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Another problem is that terrorists tend to attack people, not assets. At most they'll attack symbols like the WTC, but even then it was calculated to kill the most people they could. This map blurring would be better spent on the Mall of American and sports stadiums, but if you follow that logic you'd eventually blur the entire map and burn all paper maps, because all of the maps could be used to help a terrorist. I'm not saying that anyone would explicitly advocate blurring the entire map (or burning t
  • by Anonymous Coward
    In Japan, just about anything "sensitive" gets pixelated.
  • ... the Maps.

    The original maps were bought from Keyhole, a company that Kodak used to own. In the past they only offered LandSat imagery of all Kodak buildings (15 meter), but now they've just gone to the original 1 meter and simply kerneled it. It's EXTREMELY easy to see here- check out the parking lots. TF8&z=17&ll=43.197081,-77.628826&spn=0.006695,0.01 6909&t=h&om=1 []

    I have found it to be a bit annoying as I use features around the airport for identification for my work, and it was always nice to have an outside 'reference' which might or might not agree with the GPS solution.

    And why would Kodak care about providing high resolution targetting information of their infrastructure to competitors, not including the 10,000 gallon tanks of various hydrocarbon solvents that are stored near the center of the complex so that, should an explosion occurr, the buildings themselves will buffer 80% of the immediate damage and pressure wave to prevent wanton death and destruction?

    For 'sensitive' areas it's not much to ask.

    Oh, and btw- No problem seeing 1m resolution here: 897,-77.009375&spn=0.001787,0.003347&t=h&om=1 []

    My point? It's not that tough to get high resolution CQQs from your local state bureau. The county mosaics are high resolution and flown 2x per year by the USDA.
    • Yeah, and most of the buildings at Kodak are empty now, anyway.

    • by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @06:27PM (#17792710)
      I have found it to be a bit annoying as I use features around the airport for identification for my work, and it was always nice to have an outside 'reference' which might or might not agree with the GPS solution.

      For every "terrorist use" there are thousands or more productive uses like yours. Blurring it out only serves to make people's jobs harder and is thus a drag on the economy.

      That's terrorism. Miminal threats that cause out of proportion reactions that themselves cause more damage than than any direct terrorist action.
  • by Kensai7 ( 1005287 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @05:45PM (#17792320)
    Hey, can I drop a line to the Google Maps service asking them to fat-pixel my house? I have an epiphany toilet on the roof and I got to be sure I avoid awkward situations...
  • by Fuzzums ( 250400 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @05:45PM (#17792330) Homepage
    When I'm laying in my backyard I want to be sure Google well pixelate my sensitive areas too ;)
  • I wanted to see the painting on the tanks.
    pulled up google maps and there it is in its pixelated glory.
    Gas tank art all pixelated []
  • But how about images from satellites operated by other nations, such as SPOT or Sovinformsputnik? ...are probably under closer surveilance by NSA and its buddies. And probably quite a bit of government pressure and a self-enlightened interest to stay in business to make them cooperate to discover potential terrorist surveilance missions. I think just getting someone to make a custom request for that information is the first step in creating a trail that can be tracked.
  • Yeah! There's all sorts of things like that. Check out the Morro Bay (CA) Power Plant []. Go ahead, I'll wait.

    Don't you think that's an awfully suspiciously located patch of fog? Clearly this is proof that not only is Google covering up "sensitive" images, but that the government's secret Weather Control Division is involved as well.

    Hold on a minute, I think I hear a black helicopter outside...
    • ...patch of fog...

      Nuclear power plants often have cooling towers, which put out plumes of steam. So they're actually sort of self-obscuring :)


  • In both the photos, the area is mostly parking lot.

    What would the terrorists see if these areas weren't blurred? That there were once cars in a University staff parking lot?

    This is especially absurd in the umass case, since walking around on a school campus isn't illegal.

  • Isn't pixellated, it's merely overexposed to the point of showing about the same detail.
  • It's perfectly obvious that there was a temperature gradient in the atmosphere between the aircraft and the building, resulting in optical distortion of that building. Sheesh, conspiracy theorists.

    Dan East
  • There is similar blurring (but different algorithm, not just pixelization) at the Indian Point nuclear power generator north of NYC. Possibly done by NYSGIS?

    Google Maps []

    • by sam1am ( 753369 )
      Was going to post this one as well. Interestingly, the Croton-Harmon train station and Metro-North Commuter Railroad yards a bit further south are also blurred [].
  • John E. Amos Power Plant [], definitely blurred.
  • The nuclear engineering building [] at purdue university (where they have a small functioning reactor) is not blurred out at all.
  • The USSR used to leave entire towns off of maps altogether, and they weren't that friendly about making any maps available. They remembered having been invaded, and were afraid that maps might be useful to invaders.

    Google is doing much less damage to information flow than the USSR's cartographers did. They're probably doing an equal amount of good.
  • by phlegmofdiscontent ( 459470 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @06:46PM (#17792880)
    Curiously enough, the Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant near Minneapolis is unblurred. 1647,-92.636139&spn=0.007361,0.014591&t=k []

    To the lower left, you can even see the waste storage containers. If you look closely, you can even see the machine gun nests. Incidentally, I visited this facility as part of a physics trip back in my undergrad years, before 9-11. I don't know if they allow visitors anymore.

    Also, the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant unblurred. +(S),+Monticello,+MN+55362&ie=UTF8&z=16&ll=45.3324 63,-93.847833&spn=0.007271,0.021629&t=h&om=1 []
  • Anyone know what this area is?

    Link on Google Maps []

  • by Fishbulb ( 32296 )
    Oddly enough, the area in Google Maps around the Catawba Nuclear Power Plant (see: []) is at a higher resolution than the surrounding area (I grew up nearby) and obviously taken during a different season. At least, as of a week ago...

  • Note how this view seems to have the high-resolution area deliberately extended to show the Sizewell nuclear power plant (in the UK).

    here's the link []

  • The most well known [] nuclear power station is still unblurred.
  • by cybrpnk2 ( 579066 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @07:14PM (#17793074) Homepage
    I just went to the Google map for the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge where I used to work many years ago. Beautiful close up photos of the several hundred buildings in the Complex, amazing detail of the parking lots and the roofs and the fences. At max zoom, I scrolled to the building housing my first office second office there....the cafeteria...the security booth where I went into the Exclusion Area (the highest secured area where the bomb grade uranium is)...down the road...huh. When you get to the building where the enriched uranium is (was?) machined and the scrap uranium reprocessed, you get a notice saying no zoom data for this area. You've got to back up into the sky a few hundred feet. Somebody knows what they're doing. They're only blocking the zoom on SPECIFIC CRITICAL BUILDINGS at Y-12 instead of all of them.
  • by BillGatesLoveChild ( 1046184 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @07:16PM (#17793084) Journal
    > Not surprisingly, the same areas are blurred in Google Earth.
      > But how about images from satellites operated by other nations,
      > such as SPOT or Sovinformsputnik?

    Don't worry! Everyone knows Osama only use Google Earth. He's still boycotting Sovinformsputnik over of the Soviet Invasion of Aghanistan (Go Taliban!), and said he wouldn't be caught dead using SPOT.
  • Sovinformsputnik? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by 1u3hr ( 530656 ) on Sunday January 28, 2007 @08:36PM (#17793614)
    The Sovinformsputnik link is intersting. But they seem rather out of date (not just from the "Sov" in the name).

    For instance, their sample page World Trade Center []. "These twin towers dominate the skyline by their height and the clearness of their lines. Currently it is the center for nearly every phase of international business...."

    So not really a real-time database.

  • by cpghost ( 719344 ) on Monday January 29, 2007 @11:31AM (#17799984) Homepage

    Seriously. HAM operators have already launched radio relay satellites in the past; and there's nothing preventing us from doing something similar as a grassroots movement. We may even be able to read some imagery in real-time. By licensing the image stream and database similarly to Wikipedia (cc-by-sa, gfdl, ...) we'd stay true to our open source credo and spirit. Much better than the crippleware commercial offerings of Google and others anyway! Competition and verifiability will keep them honest as well.

    Let's just make sure to have the main satellite operation center and a few relays in countries that don't promote censorship; perhaps on a pacific island, in a desert etc... Oh, and a few reflecting surfaces and other defensive means to protect against chinese killer satellites would be a good idea too.

    Financing this is would also be quite easy, I suppose. How about selling news agencies and TV networks priority slots to cover a regional crisis, wars and other events in near-real time; something they won't get from commercial operators even for big bucks?

  • Once Upon a Time.... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Hasai ( 131313 ) on Monday January 29, 2007 @01:28PM (#17801746)
    ....In the old Soviet Union, road maps (yeah, like the kind you get at the 7-11) were considered classified documents.

    There is a difference in degree, but not much else.

    Welcome to the Brave New World, kids, and the best part about it is that we did it all to ourselves.

Our business in life is not to succeed but to continue to fail in high spirits. -- Robert Louis Stevenson