Armchair sleuths discover military sites in China, discoveries underscore shift

Armchair sleuths discover military sites in China, discoveries underscore shift


Yinchuan, China, 13 September 2006 — Tech-savvy armchair sleuths around the world are having a field day discovering military secrets in China. Three times in the past few months, they’ve stumbled across unusual military installations using Internet programs that allow those online to view satellite and aerial images of the world. The discoveries have stirred up the Internet global-imagery community.

In the most recent find, users spotted an underwater submarine tunnel off China’s Hainan Island. They’ve also found a mock-up of a Taiwanese air base in China’s western desert. In a bizarre discovery, a computer technician in Germany noticed a huge and startlingly accurate terrain model in northwest China that replicates a sensitive border area with India.

“You can sort of feel the feverish buzz of these guys,” said Tim Brown, a satellite-imagery expert at, a research company that focuses on security issues. Defense experts such as Brown note that civilians are unlikely to find anything that skilled military analysts haven’t already known about and studied in detail.

But the discoveries underscore the shifts occurring, as satellite images no longer remain only in the hands of a fraternity of military and intelligence agents but fall into a broader civilian realm.

Some countries such as India, Bahrain, Russia and South Korea are spooked at the idea that ordinary people — or worse yet, terrorists — might see satellite images of installations such as military bases, presidential palaces and nuclear reactors.

There’s little they can do to stop such services as Google Earth or MSN Virtual Earth, though. And geographers, hobbyists and those with time on their hands have taken to combing the satellite images for hitherto unpublicized military sites.