The Secret Mission to Seize German Map Data in World War II

Greg Miller’s crackerjack story in the November 2019 issue of Smithsonian magazine is about the quest to capture German geodetic data—and German geographers—during the dying days of the Second World War. Said data was a strategically critical treasure trove, of immense interest to the U.S. War Department, and the team led by Floyd W. Hough was in a race to find it before it was destroyed, carried away by the enemy, or fell into Soviet hands.

Little is publicly known about the true scope of the information that Hough and his team captured, or the ingenuity they displayed in securing it, because their mission was conducted in secret, and the technical material they seized circulated only among military intelligence experts and academics. But it was a vast scientific treasure—likely the largest cache of geographic data the United States ever obtained from an enemy power in wartime.

The data seized by Hough’s team went on to form the basis of the ED50 geodetic datum, which in turn led to the Universal Tranverse Mercator system.

D-Day

Map from The Neptune Monograph
Map from the Neptune Monograph

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the Bodleian Map Room Blog (no relation) has a post showing some of the Bodleian’s map holdings that deal with Operation Overlord. (The Bodleian has posted about D-Day before: see this post from June 2014 marking the 70th anniversary, and this post from September 2015.)

Maps Mania marks the occasion with links to the Library of Congress’s collection of World War II military situation maps and the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection’s D-Day map holdings.

Meanwhile, a copy of the Neptune Monograph, a top-secret intelligence report distributed to Allied commanders before the D-Day landings that contains maps of the landing zones, can be yours for a mere $45,000. Alternatively, thanks to a Kickstarter last year, you can get a reproduction for one-tenth of one percent of that price. [Military History Now]

Update: I forgot to mention this Library of Congress blog post about a fascinating model of Utah Beach used during the invasion.

Pentagon Tells Personnel to Turn Off Geolocation in Sensitive Areas

In the wake of reports that fitness apps’ user data was exposed and could be used to identify military and intelligence personnel in sensitive areas like bases and deployment zones, U.S. military and defense employees can no longer use geolocation features in devices and apps in operational areas. The new policy was announced last Friday. Also see coverage at Stars and Stripes. [Gizmodo]

Previously: Strava Heat Map Reveals Soldiers’ LocationsNon-Anonymized Strava User Data Is AccessibleStrava, Responding to Security Concerns, Disables FeaturesPolar Flow User Data Can Be Used to Identify Military and Intelligence Personnel.

Indiana University Is Digitizing Its Collection of Russian Topo Maps

Indiana University’s collection of some 4,000 Russian military topographic maps is being digitized, thanks to a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources.

“The world-changing differences documented by maps in the Eastern Bloc Borderlands project cannot be overstated,” says Michelle Dalmau, head of Digital Collections Services for IU Libraries, and the project’s principal investigator. “In some cases we see villages and settlements depicted that no longer exist.”

Created by the Russian Military from 1883 to 1947, the maps traveled widely through their tactical use in the field. In the years surrounding World War II, many were captured by opposing forces, including German and American troops. As a result, myriad stamps from institutions they passed through—such as the University of Berlin, the U.S. Army Map Service, and the CIA Map Library—mark the maps with a unique and visual history.

More than 1,000 have already been digitized. These maps are similar to the maps chronicled by John Davies and Alex Kent in The Red Atlas (see my review), but date from before the Cold War. [Osher]

Non-Anonymized Strava User Data Is Accessible

More on the privacy issues regarding Strava’s global heat map and its customer data. Now Wired UK is reporting that Strava’s data isn’t anonymous. Because you can compare your results with nearby users, all it takes is a local GPS tracklog—which can be created out of whole cloth, as Steve Loughran’s blog post demonstrates—to see detailed information about users. Wired UK:

By uploading an altered GPS file, it’s possible to de-anonymise the company’s data and show exactly who was exercising inside the walls of some of the world’s most top-secret facilities. Once someone makes a data request for a specific geographic location—a nuclear weapons facility, for example—it’s possible to view the names, running speeds, running routes and heart rates of anyone who shared their fitness data within that area.

The leaderboard for an area, the Guardian reports, can be extremely revealing. “The leaderboard for one 600m stretch outside an airbase in Afghanistan, for instance, reveals the full names of more than 50 service members who were stationed there, and the date they ran that stretch. One of the runners set his personal best on 20 January this year, meaning he is almost certainly still stationed there.”

Which makes the security issue regarding military personnel using fitness trackers even worse than simply the anonymous aggregate of the routes they take. Yes, this is very much an unintended and unforseen consequence of relatively innocuous social sharing bumping up against operational and personal security protocols; and it’s as much on military personnel to, you know, not use GPS-enabled devices that upload your location to a third-party server as it is on companies to have clear and effective privacy controls. This is very much the result of a whole lot of people not thinking things through.

Previously: Strava Heat Map Reveals Soldiers’ Locations.

War Games Disrupting GPS in the Western U.S.

Meanwhile, aerial war games conducted by the USAF over Nevada will disrupt GPS in the western U.S. over the next few weeks. As The Drive reports, “the USAF is going to blackout GPS over the sprawling Nevada Test and Training Range to challenge aircrews and their weaponry under realistic fighting conditions. The tactic will spill over throughout the region, with warnings being posted stating inconsistent GPS service could be experienced by aircrews flying throughout the western United States.” The disruptions will occur through 16 February. [Matt Blaze]

Strava Heat Map Reveals Soldiers’ Locations

Strava is a mobile fitness tracking app that uses GPS data from phones and watches. It has access to a lot of data, and has been using that data to create a global heat map showing the paths taken by its cycling and running customers. The map’s most recent update, last November, aggregates user data through September 2017. But analyst Nathan Ruser noticed a problem: in places where local Strava use is low, the map can reveal the paths of people from wealthy western countries—for example, soldiers at U.S. military bases overseas, whether they’re patrolling or simply exercising. (U.S. troops are encouraged to use fitness trackers.) Which is to say, suddenly Strava is a security problem. Details at BBC News and the Washington Post.

A Giant Map for Presidential Inauguration Planning

The U.S. military uses a huge floor map of Washington, D.C. to plan for presidential inaugurations, as the Tech Insider video above shows. According to this, it’s used by the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee, a joint-service organization that provides military ceremonial support. (See this U.S. Army article from 2012 about the 2013 inauguration, and this 2008 Pruned blog post about the 2009 inauguration.) [Tim Wallace]

GPS and the First Gulf War

Scientific American on how the U.S. military used GPS during the first Gulf War in 1991—the first war in which GPS played a major role. “GPS would change warfare and soon became an indispensible asset for adventurers, athletes and commuters as well. The navigation system has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that the Pentagon has come full circle and is investing tens of millions of dollars to help the military overcome its heavy dependence on the technology.”