Norway blocks Apple's maps photo request over century-old law

A 100-year-old law is the reason behind the Norwegian government's decision to turn down Apple's request to photograph the country's capital from above.

The Norwegian government has denied Apple permission to take aerial photographs of Oslo.

The photos, which would have been used for 3D improvements to Apple's widely-criticised mapping software for iOS, were blocked due to a nearly 100-year-old law that is about to become obsolete.

No permit

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Apple's mapping software shows 3D models of cities based on aerial photographs of many areas around the world. In Scandinavia, both Stockholm and Copenhagen are covered by Apple's 3D maps, but Oslo isn't. In the Norwegian capital, the map overlay is 2D and low resolution.

The reason is not Apple's lack of interest in Norway, but down to the Norwegian government's refusal to let the company carry out the aerial photoshoot needed to gather the photography the 3D maps are based on.

The permits are issued by the National Security Authority (NSM) and in this instance, the government agency has not given the necessary approval.

Norwegians only

The most important issue for whether permits can be issued is that any organisations that want to do aerial photography in Norway must be Norwegian. "Foreign companies will not be given the necessary licence," an NSM spokeswoman said. This is based on the assumption that the government will have easier control over the pictures when the company taking them is Norwegian and operating solely under Norwegian law.

For Apple, the workaround is easy: hire a company with the necessary licenses to carry out the photo shoot on their behalf. "This is advice we always attach when we refuse permits on these grounds," the spokeswoman said. Another option could also be to buy pictures and map data from The Norwegian Mapping Authority.

The key point is that pictures of areas and buildings that the government wants to screen must be treated correctly. A few years ago, that meant shading over or scratching out sensitive areas from the pictures. Today, it is enough to use pictures with such a low resolution that it is impossible to use them for studying security-related facilities.

"Generally speaking, we try to be as pragmatic and helpful as possible in such cases," the NSM spokeswoman said. However, it's a very dynamic process, she told ZDNet, where the legislation governing the permits is struggling to keep up with today's mapping and photo technology. She said NSM already has begun take a more flexible stance to enforcing the legislation than it had previously.

Ancient law

The denial of a photo permit to Apple was partly based on the stipulations of Norwegian legislation known as the Secret of Defences Act. The remit of the old law is mainly used for protecting military installations from unwanted photography, but other government facilities have been subject to the security law in recent years.

This law is nearly 100 years old, and it will become obsolete when a new version of Norway's criminal code and  security legislation come into force. The legislation was passed by the parliament in 2005, and is expected to become law by 2017.

ZDNet has asked Apple for comment, and will update the story if any is forthcoming.

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