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When The Dutch Keep Secrets, Everybody Notices. A Google Puzzle

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 - 01:48 AM

What is this?

Mishka Henner

When I saw it for the first time, here's what I knew: It's a Google image found on Google Maps, taken by a satellite, plucked and blogged by photographer/sleuth, Mishka Henner. It's a patch of land near a town called Coevorden, in The Netherlands. There's a road on one side, plowed farmland all about, some trees on the lower left and then, weirdly, grey, black, white, golden, green and brown patches crunched together in an almost-rectangle. Those couldn't be natural, I thought.

They aren't. The Dutch government superimposed them on Google Maps to disguise what's underneath. They've changed it since, but what's underneath is a storage facility that serves NATO. This is how, Mishka says, The Netherlands like to keep secrets.


Google allows countries to block out neighborhoods or buildings for security purposes. North Korea has chosen to block its entire self. But the Dutch are, in their way, almost as peculiar. In a normal country, like France, if they don't want you to see Reims Air Base, they just plop big pixels on it, like this ...

Reims Air Base Google Maps

But here's what the Dutch did with their base, Volkel Air Base near Uden. To hide this place from prying eyes, they chose those same eye-catching, artful polygons, which had the completely wrong effect; these polygons made me want to look more. Why, I wonder, would they do this? Especially when truTV reports they really had something to protect: "WikiLeaks did publish a diplomatic cable that confirmed the presence of nuclear warheads at this base."

Google Maps

So this is a puzzle. The way to avoid attention is, well, to avoid attention. There are so many ways to be bland. In Hungary, the government for a while wanted to hide its Szazhalombatta Oil Refinery — which it did (they seem to have changed this now) by creating a dull green parking lot, with markings here and there. It's crude, but boring ...


... but when the Dutch decided to hide a Space Research and Technology Center they slapped this razzle-dazzle soccer ball over the complex to keep people from noticing — which makes it so noticeable. To add to the puzzle, truTV on its blog says this complex "has a visitor's center open to the public, so it's not like we aren't supposed to know it's there."

Google Maps

So what is going on? Are the Dutch (home to Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh) so in love with beauty that they can't help themselves? They want their secrets to look dashing? Beautiful?

Mishka Henner isn't sure. Writing in Granta Magazine last year, he admits there is "an absurdity to these censored images since their overt, bold and graphic nature only draws attention to the very sites that are meant to be hidden." Yup. That's clear. But the question remains ... why?

Anybody have a notion? If you live in The Netherlands, maybe you can explain what your government is thinking ...


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Comments [9]

mos8541 from ARIZONA

I get TIRED of these either totally FAKE or exaggerated claims of SECRET sites or covered up images. Either using google earth, TerraServer, and so on, I can find 99% of the locations and the VAST MAJORITY are right there to see. Now sometimes the claims are BS such as that one in canadia where its all UFO this and that NO ITS NOT...THERE LAKES DUMMY!

Jan. 24 2016 12:11 AM
netule from SF Bay

Here's another one near where I grew up:!data=!1m6!1m3!1d4191!2d6.4172458!3d52.7599957!2m1!1f90!2m1!1e3&fid=7

In the 90's, much of the area was fenced off, there were bunkers, and there was much military activity. As kids, we played around the area, but you couldn't see much through the fence. on the map they have even blurred out the row of houses that are there where some of the personnel lives. I have no idea what they did there, the rumors always were that it was something related to nuclear missiles.

Sep. 18 2013 05:53 PM

That Dutch ball makes me want to eat a Ferrero Rocher

Sep. 17 2013 12:54 PM
Stephen Dranger

If they were wary of pixel-based masking, why didn't they just opt for the "fake parking structure" or even copy paste a satellite picture of a farm over it?

Sep. 16 2013 06:30 PM
Jeff Karova from Chicago

It is similar to the crystallize effect in Photoshop; I think the underlying mathematical operation is named a Voronoi diagram.

I would imagine they are using it because, unlike grid-based pixelization, if the color sample for each cell is randomized a bit it makes it much harder to determine what geographical feature is under each cell.

With grid pixelization, if you squint your eyes it's possible to get a rough idea where a geographical marker is within the map due to regularity of the pattern and color sample.

If they are protecting secret facilities, then this is an pretty ingenious way to do it.

Sep. 16 2013 03:11 PM

I can see N. Korea just fine too.

Sep. 14 2013 11:51 PM
Abby from Seattle

Could it be to make their facilities seem less forbidding and authoritarian? These look like works of art, while pixels make the government seem sneeky, emphasizing that something is being hidden.

Sep. 14 2013 02:08 PM
Nate T. from New Mexico

The filter used for these looks like Photoshop's standard "crystallize" filter. It may be more eye-catching, but the procedure for applying it isn't any more complex than blurring or pixelating the image - it's just a cosmetic issue; the point is to take small, specific details and make them too smeared or blocky to distinguish.

What's interesting is that the same filter popped up a few years ago on prototype Dutch camouflage uniforms. Instead of being used to obscure specific features, it was used to build up dabs of random, natural-looking color.

Sep. 12 2013 08:14 PM

Interesting! But I can see North Korea in the Google Map. I can zoom in and see structures in their capitol and everything. Is this a glitch? Should I look fast? Maybe I should screen cap everything before they catch on...


Sep. 12 2013 05:05 PM

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