Citizen Spies

Submitted By Bryan Ruby May 25, 2009

I just finished reading an article from last Friday's Wall Street Journal, Gulags, Nukes and a Water Slide: Citizen Spies Lift North Korea's Veil. The article discusses how collaboration and tools on the Internet allows ordinary citizens to uncover secrets governments wish others not to see. In this case, using collaborated information and satellite images to uncover North Korea's infrastructure.

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.

This is a fascinating article from the WSJ and I'm sure this type of tech empowerment has both positive and negative consequences for our world. Having some background in remote sensing, I recall a conversation I had with a landsat specialist several years ago. During the conversation he mentioned the recent launch of some cheap satellites with 1 km resolution to be used for non-military geological surveys. I asked the question, "if a cheap satellite can produce 1 km resolution what resolutions can an expensive landsat satellite produce?". He replied such information was classified. As I said before, that conversation took place several years ago and I can only imagine how much the technology has changed since then.

If you have interest in the type of information uncovered by Mr. Melvin and company, check out his site, North Korean Economy Watch.


Submitted By Bryan Ruby| May 25, 2009

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Bryan Ruby

Bryan Ruby

Bryan Ruby is the owner and editor for CMS Report. He founded CMSReport.com in 2006 on the belief that information technologists, website owners, and web developers desired visiting sites where they could learn about content management systems without the sales pitch. Besides this site, you can follow Bryan at Google+ and Twitter.

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