China ought to know by now. You can erect internet firewalls, but you can't hide from the watchful eyes of Google.
It's a lesson that was played out recently with the discovery of an apparently secret complex located in southwestern China, near the city of Kashgar. Former CIA analyst Allen Thomson stumbled upon satellite images of the mysterious site on Google Earth as he was surveying the region for a new orbital tracking site that was reportedly being built. It goes without saying, but Thompson was quite shocked by his incidental discovery.
[Curious? Here are the coordinates for the site's location: 39.6 N, 76.1 E]
Now this isn't the first time Google's aerial service has uncovered signs of the government engaging in suspicious land development. Back in 2011, another search turned up a series of massive and similarly indecipherable man-made structures in the Gobi Desert. Speculative theories as to just what exactly the mile-long expanse of scribbled white lines were ranged from a possible shooting range for military target to a digitally manipulated hoax.
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If anyone could get a beat on what this particular shadowy construction project were designed for, it would be Thomson. According to Wired's Noah Shachtman, he's worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for thirteen years and even has a reputation as an avid national security sleuth during his free time. In 2008, the espionage expert found a suspected underground missile bunker in Iran while perusing satellite images that were posted online. And just for kicks, he also put together an 812-page sourcebook documenting the circumstances surrounding the destruction of a mysterious facility in Syria by Israeli Air Force.
But in this case, he's completely stumped and has sent a call out to anyone who can offer potential clues or a plausible explanation.
“I haven’t the faintest clue what it might be — but it’s extensive, the structures are pretty big and funny-looking, and it went up in what I’d call an incredible hurry,” he told Wired.
Whatever the case, Chinese officials are probably shaking their fists at the sky over a technology that has been a boon for armchair spies -- all of which is fair game. Google has, however, censored or blurred certain "sensitive" sites to keep them from being detected, many of which are located on U.S. soil where it's assumed that the local government would have an easier time getting the company to comply with their requests in the interest of national security.
For those interested, a list of these blocked sites can be found here.
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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com