Intelligence: The Crowdsourcing Revolution


January 30, 2009: Recently, satellite photos available on Google Earth showed a curious  new target built in a large area for testing Chinese bombs (smart and dumb) and missiles. This was the Shuangchengzi complex of air force bases and training and testing areas in central China. One of the testing areas now had a mock up of the well known Taiwanese Ching Chuan air base. If China were to ever attack Taiwan, they would want to knock Ching Chuan out of action early on. But the bomb craters on the Ching Chuan mockup show very poor accuracy. It's not known if this simply reflects the need for more pilot training, or that the Chinese are trying to lull the Taiwanese into a false sense of security.

Meanwhile, Google Earth ( has revolutionized military intelligence, and the way news on military affairs is developed and spread. Case in point is the transformation of the Chinese armed forces, and the activities of the North Korean military. Both China and North Korea have long been very secretive about military affairs. But the appearance of Google Earth (originally as Earth View) five years ago, changed everything. By putting so much satellite photography at the disposal of so many people, in such an easy- to- use fashion, unexpected discoveries were made.

People soon discovered that if they had a high-speed Internet connection, they could use Google Earth to find satellite photos of all sorts of interesting stuff. This was especially true of the "Forbidden Kingdoms" (China, Russia North Korea, and a few other). While the CIA and the military has had access to satellite photos of these countries since the 1960s, little of it was shown to the public. Now that so many people can examine these, lower resolution, civilian  satellite images, many have gone over vast stretches of the Forbidden Kingdoms, and found things that were newsworthy, and never reported before. Things like new military bases, test sites for new weapons, and the new weapons themselves.

Technically, the countries in question can request that Google not show these classified military facilities. But in making that request, they point where the classified operation is. So far, a lot of this stuff is just there to find. And users find it. This is called "crowdsourcing" (where large numbers of people accomplish impressive feats of research or analysis because they can quickly mobilize and get to the task via the Internet.) The U.S. military will not say that they appreciate the work done via crowd sourcing, but individual analysts and intelligence officials have made it known, unofficially, that crowdsourcing is another useful tool that unexpectedly came their way via the Internet.





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