Censoring Satellite Imagery at the Source

Even though the new street-level imagery from Google is getting all the attention lately, the issue of censoring satellite and aerial imagery has not gone away. Not by a long shot. Via Ogle Earth: Henri Willox noted yesterday that French air bases are now pixellated in Google Earth — a situation, he says, that puts Google Earth on the same level as the French geobrowser site, GéoPortail.

In his post, Henri writes that “it’s not Google who is responsible for the censorship, but solely the furnisher of the images” (my translation). That’s an important point to make: governments who fret about such images make a mistake when they complain about, or to, Google. Most governments have no say in the production of such images, so fulminating against Google — instead of the providers of such images, who they cannot touch — speaks to their impotence on this matter. Short of blocking the Google Earth application or its IP traffic, there’s little that most governments can do. Most governments.

Last month — yes, I’m still behind — there were a couple of articles about the U.S. government’s interest in censoring satellite images. First came an AP article quoting the director of the NGIA, Vice Admiral Robert Murrett, expressing his concerns that satellite imagery could be used to put U.S. troops at risk. The method he suggested — one that was used in 2001 in Afghanistan — is something called “checkbook shutter control”:

“I think we may need to have some control over things that are disseminated. I don’t know if that means buying up all the imagery or not. I think there are probably some other ways you could do it,” he said, leaving the specifics to legal and policy experts.

The article discusses some of the pitfalls involved in the government trying to supress certain imagery, especially given that so much of it is generated by commercial satellites, not the government. If they tried to restrict the imagery by buying it all up or by other, less subtle means, they would almost certainly be challenged on constitutional grounds.

A subsequent article from the San Francisco Chronicle examines just how inconsistently sensitive sites are pixellated. Locations that are pixellated in Google Maps, for example, are not pixellated in Microsoft or Yahoo’s map sites. Google says it does not censor imagery itself: whether a location is obscured depends on what the suppliers do to the images before Google, Microsoft or Yahoo get them, who those suppliers are, and which company uses which supplier. The U.S. government has never asked satellite companies to skip over certain areas, though it could; the U.S. and other governments have guidelines as to what aerial photographers can and cannot take pictures of. Then, whoever owns the imagery may or may not respond to requests to blur sensitive sites. The end result is a patchwork where there is no rhyme or reason to pixellation: a site is obscured for reasons of local power, paranoia and sensitivity, rather than hard and fast regulations, universally applied.

Blur images from one source, and users can find another. Censor the hell out of one map service, and users can use another. It’s the Internet: censorship is interpreted as damage to be routed around.

Via All Points Blog and Ogle Earth, among others.