Google: ‘By no means should Google Maps be used as a reference to decide military actions between two countries.’

Current incorrect border in Google Earth, showing the S-shaped river course.
Nicaragua Raids Costa Rica, Blames Google Maps
by Matt McGee / Nov 4, 2010

An error on Google Maps has caused an international conflict in Central America. A Nicaraguan military commander, relying on Google Maps, moved troops into an area near San Juan Lake along the border between his country and Costa Rica. The troops are accused of setting up camp there, taking down a Costa Rican flag and raising the Nicaraguan flag, doing work to clean up a nearby river, and dumping the sediment in Costa Rican territory. La Nacion — the largest newspaper in Costa Rica — says the Nicaraguan commander, Eden Pastora, used Google Maps to “justify” the incursion even though the official maps used by both countries indicate the territory belongs to Costa Rica. The paper points out that Bing Maps shows the correct and officially recognized border. A Google spokesperson in Central America told La Nacion that the company doesn’t know the source of the maps error. Earlier this summer, Google announced that it made “significant improvements to our borders for over 60 countries and regions.” The Cambodian government has previously accused Google of being “radically misleading” in how it shows the border between it and Thailand. Meanwhile, tension is rising in Costa Rica — a country without a military. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla went on national TV last night and asked citizens to “be calm and firm, amid the outrage that these events provoke within us.”

Postscript: Our wording above, which implies that Pastora looked at Google Maps before moving troops into the region, may be incorrect. From reading additional news reports and speaking with journalists from the Tico Times, it sounds likely that the troops were already in the area before Google Maps was used to review the disputed border.

Map provided by Costa Rica to the ICJ


Costa Rica on Saturday stepped up pressure on international mediators to engage in its territory dispute with Nicaragua, after Google Maps was cited in an incident that saw the neighboring countries dispatch forces to their joint border. The Internet search giant joined the fray after a Nicaraguan commander cited Google’s version of the border map in an interview with Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion to justify a raid on a disputed border area. The area is hotly disputed by the two neighbors, and Costa Rica has asked the Organization of American States (OAS) to investigate the alleged violations of its territory. OAS Secretary General Jose Manuel Insulza is touring both countries in a bid to mediate the dispute. On Saturday, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla said she was prepared to take the dispute to the UN Security Council if the OAS cannot find a solution. “Costa Rica is seeing its dignity smeared and there is a sense of great national urgency” to resolve this problem, Chinchilla said after meeting Insulza. A discussion with US State Department officials led Google to conclude that “there was indeed an error in the compilation of the source data, by up to 2.7 kilometers (1.7 miles),” for its map of the region, the company said Friday. Google geopolicy analyst Charlie Hale said in a Google blogpost that the State Department provided a corrected version and “we are now working to update our maps.”

The error lies in Google’s depiction of the border in part of the Caribbean coast, near the San Juan River, the center of the dispute between San Jose and Managua that arose over Nicaragua’s dredging of a river separating the two countries. Hale said Google’s map of the area will be corrected to follow the demarcation laid out in an 1897 arbitration award of a previous border treaty. “The corrected version will follow the east bank of the San Juan River going northward, nearly to the Caribbean. It will then turn eastward and follow the southern shoreline of a large lagoon, Laguna los Portillos,” he explained. The Nicaraguan government demanded that Google reject Costa Rica’s request to change the depiction of the border, which it called “correct.” “I officially request that (the border marking) not be modified,” Foreign Minister Samuel Santos asked Google representative Jeffrey Hardy. Hale noted that cartography is a “complex undertaking,” borders constantly change and “there are inevitably going to be errors” in the data. Costa Rica and Nicaragua have clashed since the 19th century over navigation rights for the San Juan River, which runs along half the frontier between the two countries. Nicaragua has denied sending troops over the border, as claimed by Costa Rica, which says Nicaraguan soldiers have crossed the waterway, pitched tents on a disputed island and raised their country’s flag there. On Tuesday, Costa Rica, which does not have an army, dispatched fresh security forces to the border to bolster 150 agents sent earlier to the region, the scene of increasingly heated cross-border tensions since October 18.

Map provided by Nicaragua to the ICJ

Nicaragua Asks Google NOT To Change Its Map On Border With Costa Rica

Nicaragua is asking the internet giant Google not to change its maps with respect Isla Calero while it continues its border dispute with Costa Rica and the dredging of the San Juan river. The request came from Nicaragua’s foreign minister, Samuel Santos, in a letter sent to Jeffrey Hardy at Google, a copy of which was made available to the press. The Nicaraguan request is based on arguments made earlier this week by Eden Pastora “commander cero”, in charge of the dredging operations, relying on Google Maps to identify the border, resulting in an international dispute that is currently before the Organization of American States (OAS).

In his letter, Foreign Minister Santos confirms the request to Google by the executive director of the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INET), Alejandro Rodriguez, in charge of the official maps of Nicaragua, not to accept an alleged request from Costa Rica to change the border between both countries in their satellite mapping service. “This letter is to confirm and reiterate the official request of Dr. Rodriguez made on behalf of Ineter to not accept the request that Costa Rica has to do, or can do to amend the line of the border with Nicaragua that appears, and has been popping up on Google maps,” noted Foreign Minister Santos in the letter.

Map attached to the Sept. 30, 1897 Arbitration Award

Regarding the boundary between Costa Rica and Nicaragua
Friday, November 5, 2010 at 7:52 PM

Update (11/8/10): For those interested in reading more about the history of this dispute, consider checking out Stefan Geens’ thorough post over at Ogle Earth [most image on this page were found here too].

Yesterday we became aware of a dispute that referenced the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua as depicted on Google Maps. This morning, after a discussion with the data supplier for this particular border (the U.S. Department of State), we determined that there was indeed an error in the compilation of the source data, by up to 2.7 kilometers. The U.S. Department of State has provided a corrected version and we are now working to update our maps. Unlike our current depiction, the corrected version will follow the east bank of the San Juan River going northward, nearly to the Caribbean. It will then turn eastward and follow the southern shoreline of a large lagoon, Laguna los Portillos. This depiction follows the demarcation laid out in the First Award of Arbitration of 1897, which affirmed the Cañas-Jerez Treaty of 1858. It is our goal to provide the most accurate, up-to-date maps possible. Maps are created using a variety of data sources, and there are inevitably going to be errors in that data. We work hard to correct any errors as soon as we discover them. Given the complexity of the issue, I thought that I’d take this opportunity to provide some additional historical context.

The dispute in this area goes back to at least the mid-19th century, and both the International Court of Justice and the United Nations have weighed in. The dispute mainly centers around control of the mouth of the San Juan River, and was recently reignited because of dredging activity in this location. In 1888, U.S. President Grover Cleveland was called upon by Nicaragua and Costa Rica to arbitrate the dispute. That year, the New York Times published President Cleveland’s decision. The 1888 Arbitration upheld the 1858 treaty and its terms.

Then, in 1897, Cleveland sent Edward P. Alexander to do a more detailed Arbitration Award for this region. Alexander went into great detail on the San Juan river boundary and drew the map depicted above. Once our updates go live in Google Earth and Maps we will be depicting the border according to the most recent and definitive records available. But as we know, cartography is a complex undertaking, and borders are always changing. We remain committed to updating our maps as needed.

Cambodia blasts Google map of disputed Thai border
by Prak Chan Thul & Martin Petty / 2.5.2010

Cambodia has hit out at Google over what it called a “radically misleading” map of the disputed Thai-Cambodia border, accusing the world’s biggest search engine of being “professionally irresponsible”. Cambodia, which is embroiled in a bitter diplomatic row with Thailand over the demarcation of the frontier, said the Google Earth map was “devoid of truth and reality” and called for its immediate removal because it was not internationally recognized. Cambodia made the complaint in a letter issued a day ahead of the first-ever visit to the border region by its outspoken prime minister, Hun Sen, a move likely to raise tension between the historic foes. “(The map) is devoid of truth and reality, and professionally irresponsible, if not pretentious,” Svay Sitha, secretary of state of the Cambodia’s Council of Ministers, wrote in the letter seen by Reuters on Friday. “We therefore request that you withdraw the already disseminated, very wrong and not internationally recognized map and replace it,” he said. Both countries have a heavy military presence along the border, where deadly clashes have occurred in the past three years.

At the centre of the row is the 11th century Preah Vihear temple, ownership of which was awarded to Cambodia in a 1962 international court ruling. However, many Thais have never fully accepted the decision and the temple has been used by both countries to stoke nationalist fervor. Thailand last year withdrew its pledge of support for Cambodia to list Preah Vihear as a UNESCO World Heritage site, arguing that jurisdiction of land around the temple had never been settled. The move angered Hun Sen, who has since formed a provocative alliance with exiled Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra, giving him a base close to home in his fight to bring down the Thai government. Hun Sen is accused by Bangkok of colluding with the billionaire, offering him a home and a job as an economic adviser, to escalate a five-year political crisis in Thailand.

Disputed Territory? Google Maps Localizes Borders Based on Local Laws / 12.1.2009

Did you know that there are countries out there that have a dispute on where their border begins and ends? Yea, you know that. But did you know that Google will show different borders depending on how and where you access Google Maps?

Google Maps Help thread has a post from Brian from the Google Maps team who explains how this works. He said: It is Google’s standard practice to show all disputed regions around the world on its global properties, such as on It has been Google’s consistent and global policy to depict disputed regions as per the claims made by the disputing/claiming nations on its global properties. This does not in any way endorse or affirm the position taken by any side but merely provides complete information on the prevailing geo-political situation to our users of global properties in a dispassionate and accurate manner. Products that have been localized to the local domain of a region such as may depict that country’s position as per the mandate of their local laws

For example, compare Google India Maps to Google Maps and you will see the border lines look a bit different. Here are screen captures:

Google Maps India, The Border:
Google Maps India Border

Google Maps US, The Border:
Google Maps in US India Border

Notice the dotted lines in the US map, how it doesn’t seem sure.

Improving the quality of borders in Google Earth and Maps
by Charlie Hale, Google Geo Policy Analyst / July 20, 2010

“At Google, we are constantly making improvements to all of our products, from Search to Gmail, Blogger to Chrome. When it comes to products like Google Earth and Google Maps, we work hard to improve our cartography and depict geopolitical features as accurately as possible. Last year, we discussed the ways we strive towards that accuracy, and today we are happy to announce some significant improvements to our borders for over 60 countries and regions (the updates are live in Maps and are coming to Google Earth shortly). To provide some background on this update, we thought we would take the opportunity to talk a bit more about our approach to mapping geopolitical features like borders.

Making Google’s mapping tools as accurate as possible is a complex process, especially when a map’s accuracy has both quantitative and qualitative aspects. We receive spatial data of all kinds – imagery, boundaries, place names, etc. – from a variety of sources worldwide, and we review them carefully before integrating them into the best representation of a given location in Google Earth and Maps. In the case of geopolitical features on our maps, the depiction of borders is something upon which local authorities, governments and internationally recognized bodies often disagree. Our goal is to provide the most legible and accurate maps we can given the information available in these oft-changing areas of geopolitical disagreement. Like most maps, ours include symbology that makes borders and other geopolitical features clearer to users. For example, we employ various boundary styles in Google Earth and Maps to clarify the current status of boundary lines, viewable here in the Help Center.

Similar to satellite imagery, boundary data is available in varying levels of resolution; the higher the resolution, the better the boundaries will follow specific geographic features, such as rivers. While we always strive to display the on-the-ground reality of a boundary’s position, in practice some boundary lines are not as accurate as we would like them to be due to the available resolution of our boundary data. With these improvements, many borders will now more closely follow natural boundaries such as mountains and rivers. The pictures below show a portion of the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which follows the Pamir Mountain Range, near the Zervashan River. As you’ll see, the new data follows the mountain ridgeline quite closely, even when zoomed in, which is a great improvement in positional accuracy.



In some areas we have improved our qualitative accuracy by changing the symbology of the boundary lines to reflect the updated status of a treaty or agreement based on political changes, new agreements or negotiations. This portion of the border between Ethiopia and Somalia changed from solid (yellow in Google Earth) – meaning “international” – to dashed (red in Google Earth) – meaning “disputed” – to reflect the ground-based reality that the two countries maintain an ongoing dispute in the Ogaden region.



In other cases our previous boundaries lacked key details and the new data provides more information. For example, we now show a disputed island near the borders of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina:



There are many other examples of both quantitative and qualitative changes we’ve made to improve our maps and we invite you to explore them. We will certainly continue to update and improve upon the borders and other geopolitical features in Google Earth and Maps, keeping in mind that the dynamic nature of such areas presents a significant cartographic challenge. Mapping is a field where there is never total agreement, but we try to do our best and will continue to develop new ways to meet these challenges. As always, we are happy to hear from our users with any questions and concerns about our approach to these complex issues.”