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. 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 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. ]