It's way beyond crop circles, blood-red lakes in Iraq, and half-hidden UFOs. Officials from Greece to New York to Switzerland are using the free satellite images to find tax cheats with undeclared swimming pools and illegal pot plantations. Armchair cartographers are also getting in on the game, uncovering -- and creating -- political minefields.
What: In June 2006, a man in Germany using the handle "KenGrok" logged on to the Google Earth Community page and asked for help in identifying an unusual land formation he had found in a desert near the city of Yingchuan in central China. In his post, he provided coordinates and described an enormous model landscape outside a military base with "mountain ranges, complete with lakes and snow-capped peaks." But what was it, he wondered?
Check the borders, suggested "stiuskr," a fellow Google Earth fan boy. Two weeks later, KenGrok found what he was looking for: Aksai Chin, a disputed border region of Kashmir claimed by both India and China, over which they fought a war in 1962. The Chinese military appeared to have constructed a 500:1 scale model of the region on the base. Confronted with satellite evidence of the accurate model, Chinese officials denied that it was a replica of Aksai Chin, saying only that it was a tank-training center. That may be, but given its close resemblance to the disputed area, it's still worth wondering what those tanks are training for.