The Geopolitics of Google Earth

August 17th, 2010

I have blogged about cities relying on Google Earth to find tax cheats who have undeclared swimming pools. This piece in Foreign Policy Magazine, titled The Geopolitics of Google Earth elaborates on some of these themes, and discusses how “Armchair cartographers are also getting in on the game, uncovering — and creating — political minefields.”

Here is a sample:


Where: North Korea

What: No longer is the world of spy satellites and orbital reconnaissance the sole domain of the U.S. National Security Agency and the CIA. From the comfort of one’s living room, amateur sleuths have trained their eyes on the cloistered North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il, discovering everything from nuclear sites to airbasessurface-to-air missile batteries to secret underground bunkers. A few years ago, Google Earth images revealed North Korean submarines — the existence of which Pyongyang had long denied — neatly lined up along the country’s western coast. This begs the question: why would such a notoriously secret regime leave its vast array of military hardware out in the open, in plain view of commercial mapping satellites?

Military analysts suggest it might be a form of deterrence, a show of strength to anyone watching. Whether there’s fuel enough for the hundreds of jets spotted on North Korean airfields is another matter. As for these mansions around an artificial lake, one can only speculate as to the owners … but it’s a bit odd that the roof of the house on the northwestern shore has huge numbers that clearly show the birth dates of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il.

North Korea watchers have been aided in their task by Curtis Melvin, a George Mason University doctoral candidate who, with a legion of volunteers, has created the world’s most authoritative annotated map of the Hermit Kingdom using Google Earth. In 2008, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) used Melvin’s maps of North Korean prison camps in a presentation on the Senate floor, saying, “Google has made a witness of all of us. We can no longer deny these things exist.”