Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Censored on Google Maps

Since the earliest days of Google Maps a big multi-colored circle has obscured a part of Noordwijk aan Zee in the Netherlands. It isn't the only location in the world which is hidden on Google's satellite imagery. However no one seems to know why Google is so keen to censor what appears to be just a normal Dutch residential neighborhood in Noordrwijk aan Zee. No other online map service censors the area and even on Google Maps you can walk around the neighborhood on Street View.

Back in 2006 this Dutch website suggested that the area was censored on Google Maps because a liquid fuel pipeline had once run through the area. However the pipeline was removed from the area a very long time ago (before Google Maps even started).

Another reason why this censorship in the Netherlands is so strange is because it is very unsubtle. Anyone looking at the area on Google Maps can be in no doubt that Google is trying to hide something here. Google is not usually so unsubtle when hiding locations on Google Maps.

A slightly more nuanced way to hide locations on satellite maps is by blurring the image. For example this building in Greece appears to have been intentionally blurred out on Google Maps. An even more subtle approach is to use a lower resolution image for censored locations. This French prison appears in lower resolution on Google Maps compared to the area around the prison. The low resolution imagery means that the casual user may not be aware of Google's censorship while at the same time successfully obscuring any details in the prison.

Even more subtle is to use older satellite imagery to hide new constructions or additions to locations. For example, it is believed that an older satellite image of this Irish prison has been superimposed on top of newer satellite imagery on Google Maps. If you look closely around the boundary wall of the prison it does appear that different images have been stitched together here.

Wikipedia maintains a useful list of Satellite map images with missing or unclear data. The list keeps track of locations which are censored on the most popular satellite map services. It has also mapped these locations so that you can view the results of this censorship for yourself.

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