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Why you can't trust GPS in China


If you’ve ever visited China, you’ll know that Western internet staples such as Gmail, Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter don’t work. This includes Google Maps, which kind of works, but with so many errors that it shouldn’t be relied upon when getting around. For Travel + Leisure, Geoff Manaugh writes about the curious case of Google Maps and GPS in China, where geographic data is owned, controlled, and even manipulated by the government. An excerpt below, the full version here.

One of the most interesting, if unanticipated, side effects of modern copyright law is the practice by which cartographic companies will introduce a fake street—a road, lane, or throughway that does not, in fact, exist on the ground—into their maps. If that street later shows up on a rival company’s products, then they have all the proof they need for a case of copyright infringement. Known as trap streets, these imaginary roads exist purely as figments of an overactive legal imagination.

Trap streets are also compelling evidence that maps don’t always equal the territory. What if not just one random building or street, however, but an entire map is deliberately wrong? This is the strange fate of digital mapping products in China: there, every street, building, and freeway is just slightly off its mark, skewed for reasons of national and economic security.

The result is an almost ghostly slippage between digital maps and the landscapes they document. Lines of traffic snake through the centers of buildings; monuments migrate into the midst of rivers; one’s own position standing in a park or shopping mall appears to be nearly half a kilometer away, as if there is more than one version of you on the loose. Stranger yet, your morning running route didn’t quite go where you thought it did.

It is, in fact, illegal for foreign individuals or organizations to make maps in China without official permission. As stated in the “Surveying and Mapping Law of the People’s Republic of China,” for example, mapping—even casually documenting “the shapes, sizes, space positions, attributes, etc. of man-made surface installations”—is considered a protected activity for reasons of national defense and “progress of the society.” Those who do receive permission must introduce a geographic offset into their products, a kind of preordained cartographic drift. An entire world of spatial glitches is thus deliberately introduced into the resulting map.

*Image: 39°54’11.8"N 116°23’29.0"E in Beijing Google Maps via Travel + Leisure