Home » Tech

How Google And Bing Maps Control The World

1 March 2013 No Comment

Behind the scenes of the most powerful maps in the history of the Earth. And how Google, Microsoft, DigitalGlobe and the world's governments decide what we can — and can't — see.

enhanced buzz 3536 1362169316 8 How Google And Bing Maps Control The World

In early February, Wired published a satellite photo of a desert structure in southern Saudi Arabia. The image, screencapped from Bing Maps, corresponded with a report that the CIA had built secret drone bases in the region. The site was available on any computer with a web browser, but appeared to be legit — Bing Maps, which is owned by Microsoft, had effectively outed a closely guarded intelligence secret.

If you went to the same location in Google Maps, however, you’d find nothing but desert.

A few months before, Bing Maps (as well as Apple Maps) had revealed a temporary replica of the compound in which Bin Laden was killed. The training facility was located thousands of miles away from the Arabian Peninsula, in North Carolina, but didn't show up on Google Maps either.

In both cases, Google and Microsoft were using imagery collected by the same satellites. Yet one reflected the reality on the ground, and the other didn't.

“Does anyone know,” asked writer Adrian Chen shortly after the Wired post went up, “why Bing maps often shows sensitive satellite images censored by Google?”

It's a good question, but one we may never get a clear answer to — Microsoft, in fact, admits that it censors map data while Google vehemently — though narrowly — denies it.

But it's a question that also gets at a bigger problem with how digital maps get made, and who controls what makes it into your web browser. Maps censorship, it turns out, is very real — just not in the ways you think.


Asked directly if it censors satellite images, a Microsoft spokesperson declined to offer specifics: “Microsoft follows a complex process for blurring that aligns with legal requirements for various countries,” a spokesperson tells BuzzFeed. “Based on where, when, and how we acquire imagery the blurring procedure occurs at different points in our production pipelines. Due to various agreements with governments, Microsoft cannot comment on the specifics of blurring processes, algorithms, or procedures.”

The spokesperson appeared to be referring to streetside imagery — that is, imagery collected on the ground, that might capture identifying information such as faces or license plates. But she clarified: “Yes, the [policy] applies to satellite imagery as well.”

Google, on the other hand, officially denies that it censors map data, telling BuzzFeed, “in occasional instances in which we receive government requests to blur portions of our imagery, we are always open to discussing those requests with public agencies and local officials. To date, none of these conversations has resulted in our blurring any imagery.”

But there's a serious caveat: “Google Earth is built from a broad range of imagery providers, including public, government, commercial and private sector sources — some of which may blur images before they supply it to us.”

Google owns the rights to what may be the most comprehensive and wide-ranging database of the Earth's surface ever recorded, but the company doesn't own a single satellite. To build its maps, Google licenses imagery from a handful of commercial satellite operators, the largest of which is Longmont, Colorado's DigitalGlobe. DigitalGlobe currently operates four satellites, with a fifth coming online next year, and submits new imagery to Google on a frequent basis; Bing, too, re-ups its data almost constantly, though its contract specifics and update demands are likely different from Google's, and unknown to its competitor .

Stefan Geens, technologist and longtime Google Earth expert, has been writing about commercial satellite imagery at his site, OgleEarth, for over five years. It's these differing contracts, he suspects, that account for Google's exclusion of the the drone base in Saudi Arabia.

It's most probably, he says, that “they have different update schedules, and Microsoft got the data a little bit earlier.”

“It will be interesting to see if Google Earth updates in the next few weeks,” he notes. Using the Google Mapmaker project, a Saudi Arabian citizen has already updated Google Maps' metadata to include an official placename for the base:

enhanced buzz 5764 1362169439 0 How Google And Bing Maps Control The World

Screenshot snapped by Stefan Geens

Yet there is a second, far more intriguing possibility — to Google, rather than blurring imagery of a secret base at the behest of the U.S. or Saudi Arabian government, simply declined to update it. The base, which is in the middle of the desert, is just a few kilometers outside of a high resolution zone.

This, says Geens, is not a smoking gun. But it wouldn’t be unprecedented. One of the few concrete examples of censorship-by-exclusion committed by Google was documented in 2007, when Google rolled back imagery in Basra, Iraq, after reports that insurgents had used it to attack British troops. Numerous tiles were rolled back to 2002-era, pre-war imagery, as documented extensively here.

At the time, a Google spokesperson was less defensive: “We have opened channels with the military in Iraq but we are not prepared to discuss what we have discussed with them. But we do listen and we are sensitive to requests.”

Since then, evidence of an unofficial policy at Google has slowly mounted: “Ever since [Basra],” says Geens, “it's very difficult to find recent satellite imagery in Afghanistan and Iraq.” This problem has been echoed elsewhere on multiple occasions.

One strangely poetic post on Google's support forums, dated 2011, reads “Google please update Iraq's Satellite images. They are 7 years old and a lot has changed.”


There are clear, well-documented cases censorship in both Google and Bing's maps. For example, take this royal Palace in Amsterdam:

View Entire List ›

pixel How Google And Bing Maps Control The World

Leave a comment!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.