What is Google Earth, and How Can it Be Used to Uncover Military Secrets?

Google Earth has recently made headlines for allowing a random web surfer to uncover China’s military base replica of disputed territory with India. Because of the media attention, many of us regular folks are now catching wind of the Google Earth phenomenon. Little did we know until now, Google Earth has inspired a whole drove of computer geeks to regularly comb satellite photos for previously unknown facts.

More importantly, Google Earth’s recent claim to fame has left many of us wondering if just anyone can find things like China’s military secrets on the Internet. Because of the Internet and in this case Google Earth, we’re left wondering if any information is outside the realm of public domain. And if everything is on the Internet now, how do we access it to avoid being left in the dust of the technologically savvy? Here’s a brief introduction to Google Earth, and what it can and can’t do in terms of revealing things we aren’t supposed to find out.

What is Google Earth?

To put it very simply, Google Earth is free, downloadable software created by Google. Google Earth allows the user to access satellite photos of just about any place on earth of interest to the user. Much like Google’s “Maps” feature, users click on areas they would like to see in various degrees of closeness. For example, today I used Google Earth to look nostalgically on a satellite photo of my mother’s neighborhood, including her house and the park across the street that I played in as a kid. I also looked at satellite photos of my old college, my old elementary school, and my new apartment building in Chicago. Google Earth is neat because you can access very clear aerial pictures that allow you to identify things like your house.

Users of Google Earth can also choose whether they would like buildings of interest, major roads, cities, and boundaries identified by the software. You can put a virtual thumbtack on the map to save places of interest, and also look at and develop tutorials about themes and places of interest to you.

How is it used to uncover military secrets?

Certain tech-savvy Google Earth users discovered some time ago that aerial satellite photos of terrain and buildings might be the key to some interesting finds. While many Google Earth geeks have tried since its unveiling in 2005 to uncover a secret of significance, no one has met with the same success as the German Google Earth user identified as “KenGrok.” KenGrok made headlines when he found a satellite photograph of a Chinese military base with a terrain model of disputed territory with India. With such an obvious Google Earth photograph as evidence, China was put in an embarrassing situation.

The recent discovery of a Chinese military secret by a Google Earth user raises some interesting questions. The most obvious is: If KenGrok can uncover a military secret using nothing but Google Earth’s free software, can anyone find the same sort of thing? If so, how?

The short answer is yes, anyone could potentially uncover something as drastic as a foreign government’s military secret. The how is a little trickier. Google Earth users try (largely in vain) to find satellite photos of significance by randomly flying to various places and zooming in on specks that look interesting. Should something look amiss, the picture is posted on Google Earth’s web site for other users to see and analyze.

The process of pouring over millions of specks and blurry terrain can become incredibly frustrating, especially because the process is so random. Should you really have your heart set on becoming the next Google Earth celebrity, it would help to have some idea of what you’re looking for. Studying aerial photographs of known military bases is a good way to get an idea of what you’re looking for, but then finding unknown military bases is another story. If you truly want to uncover something of military or political importance using Google Earth’s satellite photographs, you’re mostly going to have to invest a lot of time and rely mostly on dumb luck.

Could I uncover a military secret?

As stated before, yes. Anyone could potentially uncover a military secret using Google Earth. Realistically, though, the odds are against you. Here’s why:

1. The earth is really, really big. To uncover something as important as a military secret, you’d have to zoom in pretty close to the ground to know what you’re looking at. The odds of picking the right two square miles out of the 197 million square miles of earth’s surface are pretty grim.

2. You’re not a military expert. Granted, one or two military experts might be reading this article. If you’re actually a certifiable military expert, please excuse my rudeness and move on to the next item. If you’re just interested in Google Earth as a random user or searcher of information, keep reading.

Since you’re not a military expert (and even familiar things look kind of freaky from above), you really don’t know what you’re looking for. Lets face it: for KenGrok’s discovery to have any social impact, he (or someone who saw his Google Earth image) would have had to first identify what he was looking at as a Chinese military base. Then, he would have had to recognize the terrain model as an exact replica of disputed territory with India. Without that knowledge, his image is meaningless to him. What are the odds that if you do find something incredibly unknown on Google Earth, you can even identify it as such?

3. There are places on the world map you will want to fly to because they seem more likely than others to have military secret potential. Unfortunately, Google Earth does not have satellite photos of every place on earth. For example, clicking on both central Saudi Arabia and the northern most tip of Greenland give you the standard Google Earth error message which says that there is no satellite image of the area you wish to view. Other than a glimpse of terrain from very far away, you aren’t going to get to see squat. Other areas of interest produce very blurry images when you try to zoom in closer because the satellite photographs just aren’t that good.

While Google Earth is an interesting tool and a great diversion, the truth of the matter is that using it to uncover a military secret is something that just isn’t going to happen very often. That doesn’t mean it isn’t possible, though. If there are more military secrets to be uncovered using Google Earth, anyone can find them. Once information is on the Internet, it becomes accessible to anyone with a computer. The odds might be against you, but that’s no reason to give up your dreams of becoming Google Earth’s next KenGrok!

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