Ed Driscoll

Using Google Earth, Citizen Spies Lift North Korea's Veil

The Wall Street Journal notes:

In the propaganda blitz that followed North Korea’s missile launch last month, the country’s state media released photos of leader Kim Jong Il visiting a hydroelectric dam and power station.

Images from the report showed two large pipes descending a hillside. That was enough to allow Curtis Melvin, a doctoral candidate at George Mason University in suburban Virginia, to pinpoint the installation on his online map of North Korea.

Mr. Melvin is at the center of a dozen or so citizen snoops who have spent the past two years filling in the blanks on the map of one of the world’s most secretive countries. Seeking clues in photos, news reports and eyewitness accounts, they affix labels to North Korean structures and landscapes captured by Google Earth, an online service that stitches satellite pictures into a virtual globe. The result is an annotated North Korea of rocket-launch sites, prison camps and elite palaces on white-sand beaches.

“It’s democratized intelligence,” says Mr. Melvin.

More than 35,000 people have downloaded Mr. Melvin’s file, North Korea Uncovered. It has grown to include thousands of tags in categories such as “nuclear issues” (alleged reactors, missile storage), dams (more than 1,200 countrywide) and restaurants (47). Its Wikipedia approach to spying shows how Soviet-style secrecy is facing a new challenge from the Internet’s power to unite a disparate community of busybodies.

“Here is one of the most closed countries in the world and yet, through this effort on the Internet by a bunch of strangers, the country’s visible secrets are being published,” says Martyn Williams, a Tokyo-based technology journalist who recently sent Mr. Melvin the locations of about 30 North Korean lighthouses.

Given the desire of Google’s management to suck up to neighboring undemocratic China, I can’t help but wonder what they think about these efforts.

(Via Joshua Stanton.)