Censoring in Google Earth

In the early days of Google Earth the US White House and Capitol Building were blurred in Google Earth. But in 2005 this censorship was stopped, and today, there is high quality satellite imagery, 3D models of the buildings, and you can even explore the White House in Street View.

The most pervasive form of censorship in the imagery today, is a result of antiquated US regulations that place a restriction on the the maximum resolution that commercial satellite imagery companies are allowed to sell to their customers. Thankfully, this restriction is being relaxed over time, with Digital Globe announcing in June that the restriction had been reduced from a maximum resolution of 50 cm, to 40 cm, with a further reduction to 25 cm in February 2015. The key reason for the relaxation, is that several other countries are launching satellites with competitive resolutions and maintaining the regulations would not only serve no useful purpose, but also make US satellite imagery providers uncompetitive.

The above restriction on satellite imagery, does not apply to aerial imagery, and since much of the globes’ more densely populated regions now has aerial imagery, that is often the default imagery in Google Earth. However, aerial imagery comes from a variety of different providers, and sometimes that imagery is censored by the local government before it is given to Google.

A censored location in the Netherlands
A censored location in the Netherlands. Uncensored satellite imagery for the location can be found in Google Earth’s Historical Imagery.

Google Street view is censored for privacy reasons in a number of ways. Some countries refuse to allow it, or delay its publication while they consider the implications. Some communities, such as North Oaks Minnesota, have got it removed for the whole community. Individual users can also request to have specific images removed or blurred. Google uses image recognition software to automatically blur faces and car number plates. For more on Street View censorship see the Wikipedia Page

So, apart from the US government regulations mentioned above, how widespread is direct censorship of aerial and satellite imagery these days? If you look around on the web, there are plenty of articles listing examples of ‘censored’ imagery, but when you actually go through the list, about half the locations are merely cases of Google lacking high quality imagery for the location, with no good reason to think that it has been censored. However, there are a number of locations that are clearly censored by different pixelation methods, by completely wiping the location out, or in rare cases, using sneaky techniques like pasting imagery from somewhere else over the location.

Censorship is ineffective
Censorship can be ineffective if there are other sources of imagery beyond your control. Above left, aerial imagery taken in the Netherlands and censored. Above right, the same location taken by Digital Globe, a US satellite imagery provider not subject to Netherlands law.

Good comprehensive lists are surprisingly rare, and the best list we could find was on Wikipedia and it sensibly qualifies its claims as including both censored and ‘unclear’ areas. It turns out there are surprisingly few locations with known censored imagery, and for most of those there is reasonably good uncensored satellite imagery available. About a third of the locations are from aerial imagery taken in the Netherlands in 2005.

We have made a KML for your convenience including all the locations from the Wikipedia page that have coordinates, and that we think do show strong evidence of censorship. There are also some locations mentioned in the article but without coordinates given and we have included one or two, but not all. If any of our readers knows of a more comprehensive list, or even better, a list designed for exploring in Google Earth, let us know and we will update this post with a link to it.

[ Update: Thank you to GEB reader Hill, for letting us know in the comments that there is a much more comprehensive list in the Google Earth Community Forums including a KML file Check only the “Censorship” box, and remember that the censorship may, in some cases, only be in the Historical Imagery. ]

About Timothy Whitehead

Timothy has been using Google Earth since 2004 when it was still called Keyhole before it was renamed Google Earth in 2005 and has been a huge fan ever since. He is a programmer working for Red Wing Aerobatx and lives in Cape Town, South Africa.






PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.

Comments

  1. The entire country of Israel including the palestinian territories has always had an artificially low / pixelated resolution.

  2. Erbil airport (Kurdistan) appears to be censored. At a long way out the image shows the new runway as a faint line, but as you zoom in it changes to the old runway.

    • Timothy Whitehead says:

      That is because Google have a square of higher resolution imagery around Arbil that is shown when you zoom in, but it is from 2004 which is older than the low resolution picture used for a global view, when zoomed out. The picture used when you are zoomed out, is not an ordinary image, but a combination of many images taken over time and then processed to remove clouds and smooth out the colors etc to give a more uniform global picture.

  3. The censorship example from Noordwijk aan Zee is either a glitch or something rather clever because the whole area appears in Street View as regular roads of typical Dutch housing running seamlessly into surrounding ‘uncensored’ areas.

    However, the Netherlands authorities had a record of censorship the earlier days of Google Earth, and a good example was the seat of government in the centre of the Hague, but the mega pixelation no longer appears in the default or historic imagery.

    Of course, users are not aware of the effective censorship 🙂

  4. There is a more extensive list in the posted in the Google Earth Community Forums. It can be found and downloaded here: https://productforums.google.com/forum/#!topic/gec-data-discussions/z2rEahyQa3U%5B1-25-false%5D Check only the “Censorship” box. Some has been removed but much of the censorship remains, particularly in The Netherlands.

  5. Now we can figure out the best routes to break into the white house in order to paint it pink and call it The Pink House or The Pinky House featuring Pinky And The Brain! They really are insane! Pinky Pinky and the brain brain brain brain…….

    Seriously though after 9/11 happened even though I was too young to understand it Dad read on the New York Times giving away all the secret locations of our DUMBS (Deep Underground Military Bunkers).

    Now that I am older I am also upset but since we are and have been slowly giving away our military secrets since the 1980s we might as well go the whole nine yards and let us our US Government installations while we still have a country left to claim!

    Did you know that the Chinese mostly use Linux and have actually banned Windows in government installations? If the Chinese use Google they are doing so on Linux which means their military knows all the secrets of the different Linux OS systems and can hack into any one of em.

    Dad keeps his accounting offline on Win 7 and only updates when necessary for just a minute and then be done with it all and so should you.

  6. Bob Dylan’s Malibu Estate is blurred out. it is located at Point Dume

  7. I got one for you guys..this is blatantly whited out.
    39 26’33.93″ N 119 32’35.67″ W
    Tell me your thoughts on this if you could

    • Timothy Whitehead says:

      I don’t think that is censorship. Most likely it is a highly reflective surface that was too bright for the camera.

      • I will try and find an earlier picture. The size of this area has changed from when I first viewed it.

  8. Now Google earth is censoring the Fukishima nuclear disaster. What is it they dont want us to see? The power plant breaking off and floating in the Pacific Ocean?

    • Timothy Whitehead says:

      Fukushima is not censored in any way. There is even an image from November 2016 available.



PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.