There is a New York Times article today about the Spratly Islands, a group of coral atolls in the South China Sea that are contested by several nations: The Philippines, China, Taiwan, Viet Nam, Brunei, and Malaysia. However, when looking at the area in Google Earth today, I discovered something else: blatant examples of manipulated satellite images. Several islands had been added and all were claimed by Viet Nam. The retouching was very crude and easy to spot. Here’s an example:
As the New York Times article mentions, there is a legal proceeding in progress in which the correct argument is made, that submerged features belong to the sea floor and thus to the nation that has the territorial claim to the sea floor — and not to whoever happens to occupy the feature in question. Therefore, a building on poles in an atoll without an island does NOT convey any right to territorial claim. Hence the need to show that there is actually an island, and that it is inhabited, and inhabited by civilians, not just by a military base, or a scientific outpost or similar. The photoshopping of Google Earth images is thus an act of cyberwar, an attempt to conquer the territory of another nation.
How can I know it’s photoshopped? It’s very poorly made. Just look at these waves and the beach. Horrible work. I’ve seen aerial photos manually retouched by the Swedish military, and they completely hid military installations in a way that made it impossible to detect the retouching. This, on the other hand, looks childish. If it was done by someone working for the Viet Nam government I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they had met their fate before a firing squad for incompetence. Photos had also been added which were completely out of place:
The many photos on the island are also less than convincing. First, they are not randomly spread, but it is obvious that it is the work of a laboratory. Second, they can impossibly be from that island, they don’t fit the geography.
The NY Times article dealt with Chinese bullying of Philippine islands through massive presence of boats, but here I focus on the Vietnamese strategy: Cyberwar. How did they edit the Google Earth imagery? The U.S. is already involved in this cyberwar, since Google is a U.S. company.