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A surfer has “tampered with” OpenStreetMap to the advantage of China

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Recently, a cartography enthusiast discovered the actions of a mysterious contributor on OpenStreetMap. The latter modified certain places to the advantage of China, such as the disputed border with Bhutan or at the level of the Spratly Islands in the China Sea.

A visibly pro-China user

OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a collaborative online mapping project open source aimed at constituting a free geographic database of the world. In other words, it is in a way the Wikipedia of cartography in which many contributors participate. As the media explains Rest of the world in a publication of March 29, 2021, Nick Doiron, a cartography enthusiast and user of the platform, was challenged by an article in the New York Times appeared a few days earlier. The US daily explained with the help of some satellite photos how China had built a village along the sensitive border with one of its neighbors: Bhutan.

Nick Doiron then went to check on OpenStreetMap and found that someone had provided new details long before the New York Times article. In addition, these changes do not appear on other media such as Google Maps. Dubitative, Nick Doiron was surprised at the presence of different buildings such as a school, a police station or even a radio station. The person concerned wonders how anyone could have access to this kind of information, even by buying a satellite photo from a private company.

Credits: capture OpenStreetMap / Rest of the world
China Bhutan border 2
Credits: capture OpenStreetMap / Rest of the world

Other modifications discovered

While carrying out his small investigation, the enthusiast discovers that the “culprit” bears the name of NM $ L. This Chinese slang word happens to be related to a hip-hop music label. However, the fact is that the user in question had previously operated other modifications on OSM along the Chinese border in disputed territories. Among these changes, some relate to the Spratly Islands in the China Sea, also claimed by a handful of other countries. For several years, the country develop several islands many of which were still not long ago, only islets. A few weeks ago, we were talking about Sansha City, a new city ex nihilo attached to the province of Hainan, which has become the southernmost Chinese city.

Obviously, this kind of modification perhaps shows the open source limits in the field of cartography. Indeed, everyone does not always check and some places are very poorly documented. In addition, the geopolitical issues in connection with maps are more important than ever. As Nick Doiron explained, pro-India accounts have also already made changes to the border with China to add military checkpoints.


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