Intelligence: The Cursed Gift From Google

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October 11, 2016: Taiwan has asked Google to hide a new construction on Itu Aba Island. That activity was not much of a news item even though it was clearly visible on Google Earth. Taiwan was soon reminded that making that request has quite an opposite effect. Countries can request that Google not show classified military facilities but in making that request they point out where the classified operation is. So far, a lot of this stuff is just there for anyone to find. And Internet users find it. This is called "crowdsourcing" (where large numbers of people accomplish impressive feats of research or analysis because they can quickly mobilize and get to the task via the Internet). The U.S. military will not say that they appreciate the work done via crowdsourcing, but individual analysts and intelligence officials have made it known, unofficially, that crowdsourcing is another useful tool that unexpectedly came their way via the Internet. For Taiwan requesting that Google blur out or “erase” there new concrete structures (apparently for mounting air defense systems) simply provided more publicity for the construction effort that was apparently completed by late 2015.

Moreover it was no secret in 2007 when Taiwan began building a 1,150 meter long, and 30 meter wide air strip on Itu Aba, one of the Spratly Islands. The Spratlys are a group of some 100 islets, atolls, and reefs that total only about 5 square kilometers of land, but sprawl across some 410,000 square kilometers of the South China Sea. Set amid some of the world's most productive fishing grounds, the islands are believed to have enormous oil and gas reserves. Several nations have overlapping claims on the group. About 45 of the islands are currently occupied by small numbers of military personnel from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Called Taiping Island by the Taiwanese, Ita Aba is one of the largest of the group, at about 120 acres (489,600 square meters). It has been in Taiwanese hands since the mid-1950s, and has largely been used as a way station for fishermen. The island is also claimed by the Vietnamese, who call it Thai Binh. Taiwan has long maintained a small military presence on the island, and the air strip, completed in 2008, was meant to cement that control. Protests were made by Vietnam, which controls the largest group of islands, and the Philippines, which also claims Itu Aba. The Vietnamese earlier refurbished an old South Vietnamese airstrip on Big Spratly Island.

The government and military intel community has the money and software chops to screen and analyze huge quantities of data on the Internet, both text and pictures. Despite all these resources the intel behemoths continue to get overtaken by civilian amateurs. A large factor in this was the appearance of Google Earth and other commercial satellite photo sources. This revolutionized military intelligence and the way news on military affairs is developed and spread. Case in point was details on the transformation of the Chinese armed forces, their activities in the South China Sea and usually unpublicized detains of what North Korean, Iranian and other secretive military organizations are up to. China and North Korea have long been very secretive about military affairs. But the appearance of Google Earth (originally as Earth View) in 2005 changed everything. By putting so much satellite photography at the disposal of so many people, in such an easy- to- use fashion, unexpected discoveries were made.

People soon discovered that if they had a high-speed Internet connection, they could use Google Earth to find satellite photos of all sorts of interesting stuff. This was especially true of the "Forbidden Kingdoms" (China, Russia, North Korea, and a few others). While the CIA and the military has had access to satellite photos of these countries since the 1960s, little of it was shown to the public. Now that so many people can examine these lower resolution, civilian satellite images many have gone over vast stretches of the Forbidden Kingdoms and found things that were newsworthy and never reported before. Things like new military bases, test sites for new weapons, and the new weapons themselves. The open discussion of these findings, most of them already known to the large national intel agencies, brought forth insights and analysis that was often superior to what the much smaller number of professional analysts were capable of. Another example of “the wisdom of the crowd.”

 


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