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WSJ: "Democratized intelligence" through Google Earth

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The intelligence community has talked about using open-source data for years, but a George Mason University doctoral candidate and his cohorts are taking the concept to the next level. The Wall Street Journal last week reported that Curtis Melvin and about a dozen other “citizen snoops” — some of whom are former military analysts — have spent the last two years using Google Earth’s satellite images to map out the infrastructure of North Korea.

It’s not easy, since North Korea is perhaps the most secretive country on the planet. Melvin and others sift through news reports, photographs and eyewitness accounts, and then try to match landmarks to the satellite photos from Google Earth. They’ve pinpointed what they believe are nuclear reactors, nuclear missile sites, transportation and electrical infrastructure, more than 1,200 dams, 47 restaurants, palaces and a water slide for Kim Jong Il and other North Korean leaders, and the country’s massive gulags:

Joshua Stanton, an attorney in Washington who once served in the U.S. military in South Korea, used Google Earth to look for one of the country’s notorious prisons. In early 2007, he read an international news report about a mass escape from Camp 16, which the report mentioned was near the site of a nuclear test conducted the year before.

No pictures of Camp 16 are believed to have been seen outside the country. But Mr. Stanton had pored over defector sketches of it and combed the map for familiar structures. “I realized I had already noticed the guard posts” on Google Earth the previous year for the nuclear test site, he says.

Mr. Stanton traced what he believed is Camp 16′s boundary, enclosing nearly 300 square miles, and those of other large North Korean prisons and shared them with Mr. Melvin. The fences aren’t easy to follow because they go over mountain ridges, he says. But satellite images often reveal gaps in the vegetation along the fence line, because trees are cleared on either side to prevent people from climbing over.

The project, North Korea Uncovered, can be downloaded here.

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