Monday, March 12, 2007

Where's Bin Waldo? Use Google Earth to find him!

Wired has an interesting take on why Google Earth's resolution increases in seemingly random places on the Afghan/Pakistani border. Since Google gets its images from the same satellite companies that provides the CIA and the DOD their images, Google gets high resolution 'leftovers' from the big dogs (usually 6 to 18 months after the CIA requests them, though).

Where in the world is Osama bin Laden? Uh ... try checking Google Earth. After Google recently updated its satellite images of parts of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, much of the region still looked blotchy — the kind of low resolution that persists in coverage of, say, upstate New York. But several small squares (they stand out as off-color patches from 680 miles up) suddenly became as detailed as the images of Manhattan. These sectors happen to be precisely where the US govern­ment has been hunting for bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Turns out, Google gets its images from many of the same satellite companies — DigitalGlobe, TerraMetrics, and others-that provide reconnaissance to US intelligence agencies. And when the CIA requests close-ups of the area around Peshawar in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, Google Earth reaps the benefits (although usually six to 18 months later). This is also why remote parts of Asia went hi-res after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and the Kashmir earthquake in 2005.

Google doesn’t ask why resolution improves in particular locations. But the CIA believes bin Laden is holed up in the Hindu Kush mountain range-one of the most out-of-the-way places on Earth — and you can now see every house, school, and mosque in certain villages there. Keep your eyes peeled for a very tall guy with a long beard and an AK-47. — Matthew Cole


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