All Your Base Are Belong to Internets

Over the weekend news broke that since November, plans for military bases around the world were available to anyone and everyone on the internets. How? Why?

Well, it turns out that soldiers using wearable tech to track their rides or cycling routes had forgotten to disable that feature whilst on military installations. And so when the company collecting the data published a global heatmap of activities, well, this happened.

You can even make out the perimeter of the former British airfield.
You can even make out the perimeter of the former British airfield.

This is not one of the worst offenders, because this is the site of what was formerly Camps Leatherneck and Bastion, the American and British, respectively, military bases in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. But we all know those bases exist and where they are. But, what is interesting and perhaps worrying for military planners is that sites like this do not show up on publicly available sites like Google Maps, for example. Take the same heatmap and look at it on satellite view and you get…a whole lot of nothing.

A view of the two military bases from well before they were constructed.
A view of the two military bases from well before they were constructed.

The problem is that when this technology is applied to places like, say, Syria. Given the civil war there, it is far more likely that users of wearable tech belong to or are working with one of the western military forces operating in the country. After all, the rest of the country is dark. So what is this set of rectangles and a grid-like pattern?

A bunch of rectangles and squares. It looks like a built up area, if not base.
A bunch of rectangles and squares. It looks like a built up area, if not base.

Well, by looking at the satellite photography, it is clearly a field situated between two small hamlets.

Nothing to see…I just run very straight routes through the middle of Syrian fields…
Nothing to see…I just run very straight routes through the middle of Syrian fields…

Most likely it is an American base. Could be Russian, though. But now we know where it is and have a rough understanding of its layout. You can see why military planners are concerned.

And it all owes to the ubiquity of tracking data on wearables, mobiles, vehicles, &c. And as we continue to generate data and want to see it visualised, are there or should there be boundaries? Alas, not a conversation for this blog to solve, but a conversation we should all continue to have.

Credit for the piece goes to the Strava design team.

Author: Brendan Barry

I am a graphic designer who focuses on information design. My day job? I am the data visualisation manager for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. (This blog is my something I do on my own time and does not represent the views of the Fed, blah blah blah legal stuff.) And with my main interest in information design—be it in the shape of clear charts, maps, diagrams, or wayfinding systems—I am fortunate that my day job focuses on data visualisation. Outside of work, I try to stay busy with personal design work. Away from the world of design, I enjoy cooking and reading and am interested in various subjects from history and geography to politics to science to the arts. And I allow all of them to influence my work.

Leave a Reply