Why is Google maps obscuring what Apple and Nokia’s are happy to show you?

Yesterday I published a short report on Google obscuring military sites in its maps. Since publishing it, I’ve been accused of link-baiting, Google bias (hey, it makes a change from being called an Apple fanboy), spreading FUD, and all manner of other evil activities.

Here’s the full report.

I’d hoped the report would raise some interesting questions. To me it’s an incredibly fascinating subject; what do countries hope to gain by ordering Google and others to pixelate their imagery? Any military worth a damn would surely hide sensitive equipment from their enemies’ spy planes and satellites anyway. And, paraphrasing a commenter, “nothing says ‘hey this is probably worth bombing’ like a pixelated field in the middle of nowhere.”

I wanted to answer a couple of questions in the report. First; “what prompts Google to obscure the sites (and many others throughout the world) in the first place?” and second; *why hasn’t Apple’s satellite image provider been prompted to do the same?“

Google was more than happy to speak with me about its policy, even if the answer it gave, when you consider the facts, was a little unsatisfactory. A spokesperson told me that Google had never had a conversation with officials that resulted in it blurring imagery. However, as Google has access to the same satellite images as Apple (via DigitalGlobe), it looks as though it’s choosing low-res photography for certain sites.

My conclusion regarding Apple (and in part, Nokia, whose maps fall somewhere between the other companies’) was that its Maps app hasn’t really been on the radar of governments, especially considering that, despite a lengthy beta program, the app has only been ‘public’ for a week or so. I closed saying that, as countries take this sort of thing extremely seriously, the company will have to deal with these kind of government requests, and will likely have to start pixelating its maps as well. Unfortunately, Apple didn’t respond to my request for comment.

What I DIDN’T imply, anywhere in the article, was that Apple was enabling terrorists, attempting to incite a war, or being willfully abrasive towards foreign governments. The company is totally new to this market and, apart from a single case in Turkey, I don’t think what it’s doing can even be deemed a serious issue (although I’m sure some agencies will disagree). I think there will be a ton of “leaning” on Apple to change its imagery — behind closed doors of course. I’m pretty sure my article alleviates Apple and Nokia of any blame, as well. The report basically says: “hey, isn’t it interesting that one company has clearly been forced into doing this, but two others haven’t?”

So when people, or indeed other websites, start comparing screenshots of Area 51 (a location completely unobscured on all three services), and shouting that “Google’s maps are actually clearer here!” I can’t help but feel that they’ve missed the point entirely. It would seem, to me at least, that if Google hasn’t pixelated an area then neither Google nor Google’s partners have been asked to pixelate an area, simple as that.

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