A top-secret base in Taiwan, revealed on Apple Maps. The Navy SEALs’ rehearsal site for the Osama bin Laden raid, found on Bing. Once again, commercial satellites have snapped images of things that governments would rather hide from public view. And once again, those governments are finding that there’s not much they can do once this sensitive imagery ends up online.
The big technology companies and their mapping apps have been turning generals red-faced for the better part of a decade by posting on the net pictures of sensitive locations. Back in 2009, the Pakistani press blew the lid off of the U.S. drone campaign there by publishing Google Earth pictures of a local airbase — with American Predators parked on the runway. This summer, orbital images appeared online of a stealthy and previously undisclosed robotic aircraft at Lockheed Martin’s “Skunkworks” facility.
Still, it was a bit of shock Tuesday when internet sleuths noticed on Bing Maps the mock compound where members of SEAL Team Six rehearsed their mission to kill Osama bin Laden. Matt Bissonette, a member of that team, mentioned the place in his memoir, No Easy Day. (The full-scale model was so realistic, he wrote, that ”construction crews put in mounded dirt to simulate the potato fields that surrounded the compound.”) But Bissonette didn’t mention where the compound was, specifically — only somewhere in the North Carolina woods.
Turns out the CIA training facility was in Harvey Point, North Carolina. And a Digital Globe satellite snapped a picture of the place in early 2011 before it was destroyed, leaving only the slightest trace of its existence.
This is something the U.S. government used to actively try to preempt. As Danger Room co-founder Sharon Weinberger noted, the U.S. military in 2001 bought up all the available commercial satellite images of Afghanistan right before sending American troops there. But resistance has proven (largely) futile. Even the Vice President’s house — famously blurred during Dick Cheney’s residence there — was eventually brought into focus. By the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003, the satellite pictures were so common that Washington didn’t bother going on another orbital shopping spree.
Today, there are sensitive facilities that occasionally vanish — or get de-rezzed — from the databases of Google Earth or its competitors, after a government pleas its secrecy case.
The Taiwanese military is hoping that’s what will happen to the picture of a secretive radar base that appeared in Apple’s new Maps application on its iPhones.
“Regarding images taken by commercial satellites, legally we can do nothing about it,” defense ministry spokesman David Lo told reporters. “But we’ll ask Apple to lower the resolution of satellite images of some confidential military establishments the way we’ve asked Google in the past.”
The site, still under construction, is located in the northern county of Hsinchu, according to the AP. It contains a $1.24 billion ultra-high-frequency radar that, once finished, should give Taipei extra time to prepare in the event of a Chinese missile strike.
Perhaps Apple will pull the images. But before the Taiwanese get too upset with Cupertino and the other satellite imagery publishers, they should remember than the Chinese have had plenty of seemingly sensitive locations snapped from above — and those shots are still online.