About those missing Predator drones: It wasn't censorship after all

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 (00:21 UTC)

Well, you should never trust the media, should you? I've just been on the phone with a Google spokesperson, who was keen to correct a number of mistakes in the reporting of the London Times and Pakistan's The News; these articles had led me to conclude that Google had censored imagery showing Predator drones deployed in Pakistan, but now I think was wrong; Google says there was in fact no intentional redaction of imagery containing Predator drones at Shamsi airbase from Google Earth, nor was it ever asked to remove this imagery by the US government.

So how can this square with the apparent removal of the imagery from DigitalGlobe's inventory, and its absence from the recently introduced historical image archive accessible in Google Earth 5?

Let's take one item at a time:

The DigitalGlobe imagery of the Predator drones at Shamsi was not taken in 2006, as both the London Times and The News contend, but in 2004, says Google. It was visible in Google Earth from 2006 onwards, until its recent replacement by imagery taken in 2007. When this replacement happened is not something the Google spokesperson was able to pinpoint, but it would not have been in the last week or two, as there hasn't been a general dataset update in that time. Thus The News was also inaccurate in stating that both the 2004 and 2007 imagery was still available on Feb 18, 2009, when in fact only the 2007 imagery would have been visible at the time of the article's publication.

The DigitalGlobe store corroborates Google's explanation — there is indeed an image of Shamsi base available for purchase that was taken on July 2, 2004, and here is the low-resolution preview. (You can also find it with the DigitalGlobe default layer in Google Earth.) You can't actually see the predator drones in the preview, as the resolution is too low, but absent me dropping a few grand to get my own personal high-resolution copy, I'm willing to give Google the benefit of the doubt on this, especially as the imagery will be available for free eventually (see below).

This misattribution of the date of the drone imagery to 2006 instead of 2004 is also the reason why I didn't find the imagery in the DigitalGlobe archive while researching my original post — it was there all along, but listed under 2004.


Another, more interesting implication is this: Unlike what the mainstream media has reported until now, we can now infer that there were US Predator drones deployed on Pakistani soil as early as 2004, rather than as early as 2006. Whether that makes things worse or better I'll leave to others:-)

What about the the fact that the imagery is missing from the recently introduced historical image archive? The catch here is that the archive is indeed "recently introduced", says Google, and that means that not all the imagery available to Google has made it into the archive yet. According to Google, the rollout concentrated on making historical imagery for the most populated places available; Baluchistan is clearly not such a place. I was assured that the imagery from 2004 showing the Predator drones is in Google's possession, that it is in the queue for inclusion in the historical archive, but that Google just hasn't gotten around to it yet because of the backlog. Since that explanation is also a promise:-), it will be easy enough to verify this claim in due time.

So where does the blame lie for what is now most likely to be a faulty conclusion in my original post? Both the London Times and The News are guilty of misreporting the dating of the Predator imagery in their possession, and The News most likely misreported when the imagery was visible in Google Earth. But I was wrong to take their reporting at face value, especially as Ogle Earth gleefully lambasts mainstream media for their general cluelessness on most other occasions. I also assumed that the new historical imagery database in Google Earth 5 was a complete catalog of past imagery visible in Google Earth, when it is not (yet). Finally, Google could perhaps be a little bit more pro-active about quashing media errors on their own blog (like this), so that this blog doesn't have to blunder around in the dark so much until the errors get so egregious that a Google spokesperson is forced to call me up to set the record straight. Otherwise, I might just turn that into a reporting tactic:-)

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Heh...Stefan, you're so funny sometimes! I really chuckled both at your ability to admit your own hypocrisy combined with the ability to joke about using this approach as a reporting tactic to get Google to respond on issues like this. Classic!

Posted by: Frank Taylor at 1:46 UTC, February 24, 2009

Of course, if we posted about every mistaken news story, we wouldn't have time or energy to post about the good stuff!

Posted by: Mano Marks at 4:40 UTC, February 24, 2009

Excellent. You jump to stupid conclusions and somehow blame the media. Do you not see any irony in your claim?

Posted by: bigyaz at 18:26 UTC, February 24, 2009

Regardless of the mea culpa, censorship, in whatever form it presents itself, is an important topic of discussion, either in the blogosphere or, hopefully, in the classroom. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

Posted by: Jim Dornberg at 19:04 UTC, February 24, 2009

the image with the drones is now visible in the historical images archive

Posted by: Alsay at 19:00 UTC, March 16, 2009

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Ogle Earth documents how Google Earth and other neogeographical tools are affecting geopolitics. By Stefan Geens. Email me. Last tracked here:
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