Want to See China’s Latest Top-Secret Military Site? Just Google It

It’s spy vs. spy vs. blogger in the brave new world of online intelligence gathering

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In the early days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s May Day parade gave American spies an intelligence bonanza. As the latest Soviet fighter planes streaked overhead, U.S. diplomatic staff, scattered among the crowd, furiously snapped photos of the planes from miles below. With the advent of satellite technology, they no longer had to wait for the Soviet army’s world premiere, as they could snap photos of secret military sites from space. The pictures astounded Lyndon Johnson, who learned that previous estimates of Soviet missile counts were hugely inflated. “We were building things that we didn’t need to build,” Johnson said at the time. “We were harboring fears that we didn’t need to have.”

Imagine, then, what his response might have been to the latest upheaval in intelligence gathering, whereby high-definition pictures of secret military installation turn up online, on obscure corners of the Web, for anyone to see. “The grainy photos that they were getting from those spy satellites were nothing compared to what you can get from Google Earth,” says Peter Singer, director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution. Singer and his co-researcher, Jeffrey Lin, recently wrote an analysis of China’s latest covert project, its first homemade aircraft carrier, based on nothing but photos pulled from blogs. With a little Googling, anyone can find them.

Their analysis, published in Defense One, examines the ship’s layout in startling detail. With a digital tape measure they sized up different parts of the ship, and with each measurement they reveal a new layer of meaning about its potential capabilities. An opening in the carrier’s hangar, for example, measures from 6 m to 7 m in height, a tight squeeze for a J-15 fighter jet, but too narrow for bombers with heavier payloads. The slide show, below, offers a condensed display of their findings.

If the analysis is correct, and they go to great lengths to list the unknowns as well as the knowns, then it provides a preview of how China could swing around its weight on the high seas. “It’s not a match for U.S. force,” Singer says of the carrier, “but it provides them with a signaling capability vs. their neighbors.” China has recently engaged in naval jousting matches over tiny, disputed islands in the Pacific. Its neighbors might not defend their turf so vigorously if China one day parked a hulking aircraft carrier in disputed waters. “It’s big deal for China vis-à-vis Vietnam, vis-à-vis Japan,” Singer says.

The carrier pics are just a sampling of the intelligence that regularly turns up on the Internet. Singer ticked off a few recent examples: “New U.S. spy planes, unmanned systems — a.k.a drones — that weren’t pushed under their hangars in time. Iranian missile sites. North Korean nuclear research plants. Strange patterns in China’s hinterlands that people believe were used for a missile test site.” The list goes on. These pictures can confound just about anyone’s plans to keep things under wraps. And the intelligence cuts both ways for America’s defense establishment. Singer says al-Qaeda militants used pictures of a helicopter off-loading materials at a military base in Afghanistan, along with coordinates from Google Earth, to plan an attack. The soldiers who uploaded the pictures had no idea they were providing the enemy with intelligence. They just thought it was a cool picture.

But perhaps the most fascinating point in this worldwide information dump is how it gets noticed in the first place. Jeffrey Lin is a 26-year-old graduate student of international science-and-technology policy at George Washington University. He developed an interest in military technology at the age of 14, when he commanded tanks and jets in the computer game, People’s General. Tired of waging fantasy battles across 20 different countries in Asia, he took to the Internet to learn about the reality of tanks, planes and modern weaponry. He became engrossed in two online discussion forums, China Defence Forum and SinoDefence.com, which linked up a community of military techies from all walks of life. Some identified themselves as retired vets and defense contractors, others, plain old enthusiasts. Lin would join these users in lengthy discussions of pictures that had surfaced from defense trade shows, official broadcasts or citizen journalists. The last group, in particular, has become an increasingly valuable resource, as China’s smartphone penetration and broadband access have made it possible for just about anyone to snap a photo of strange pieces of defense equipment that pass within shutter range. Smartphone pictures of a fighter jet, wrapped under a tarp, strapped to a back of a truck barreling down the highway, now crop up on the forum.

At the same time, Lin developed an ability to parse the pictures for accuracy and meaning. He became a sort of digital-age Pocahontas, who could lead old-school intelligence experts through the unfamiliar terrain of crowdsourced pictures — fending off photoshopped pics, drawing hidden meanings out of seemingly insignificant details. He can look at the time stamp and the foliage of trees and conclude, “That’s not in Shanghai or Xi’an simply because there’s no snow on the ground.” Gradually he narrows in on the location by process of elimination.

It was Lin who brought the pictures of China’s aircraft carrier to Singer’s attention. He spotted them in a post on China Defence Forum’s blog. The fact that he may have been looking at the first images of China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier didn’t even surprise him. “Well, it’s about time,” he says. “We’ve been hearing on-and-off discussion about it for years.”

Lin is just at the beginning of his career, but in a sign of how far these skills can take him, Singer points to one of the heavyweight champs of the open-source community. “Certainly one of the most important thinkers on U.S. Navy issues, is a guy who goes by the name Galrahn,” Singer says. Galrahn is the user name of a man who has no connection to the Navy, and simply created a blog, Information Dissemination, which became the hub for arguing back and forth on Navy strategy. “Pull any Navy officer,” Singer says, “and ask, ‘Who are the top thinkers out there right now?’ He would be listed in it.”

No wonder, then, that the CIA set up a center for open-source intelligence in 2005, to distill the facts of online chatter from the rumors and drip-feed them into daily memos. This crowdsourced intelligence could never replace existing threat assessments, but it can strengthen them with supporting or opposing evidence. The Internet has redirected the flow of information from a few spies to a widening number of online users, and it’s amazing how far this information can travel. Singer says he’s seen it flow from the most obscure corners of the Internet, through niche media, to the mainstream media, before it at last reaches the desks of defense officials. “You’ll see conversations that will start in one of these clusters and then end up in what’s called the Early Bird,” he says, referring to a memo of need-to-know news for top Pentagon officials.

Anyone reading this article right now may be a part of that information flow. The pictures of China’s aircraft carrier have already been spotted by a bright, 26-year-old intern, who passed it on to a prominent think-tank expert, who wrote up an analysis in Defense One, which caught the attention of a curious journalist at TIME, who is now relaying the news to you, the reader, and who knows — it might even land in the inboxes of the military’s top brass tomorrow morning, in the form of an Early Bird memo that’s not so early after all.