Keeping secrets off the map

It's an open-access medium, so what do online atlases conceal?
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The Independent Online

Picture the scene. A family of four from Devon is planning a summer holiday to Scotland, and the children, eager to show off their skills, suggest using the Internet's free map sites to help plan the adventure.

Picture the scene. A family of four from Devon is planning a summer holiday to Scotland, and the children, eager to show off their skills, suggest using the Internet's free map sites to help plan the adventure.

With the help of one of the leading web services,, they hit on St Andrew's, the picturesque golfing resort on the north-east coast of Fife. After downloading the 50,000:1 scale maps, they discover the small town has it all: beaches, ruined castles, forest walks, a nature reserve and wooded picnic areas.

But what the map does not show is the large, and at times very noisy, Nato air base right across the small firth from the Royal & Ancient golf course. RAF Leuchars, like nearly all major British military bases, does not appear on either's popular site or the free Internet maps run by Ordnance Survey (OS).

For a technology that defines open access and freedom of information, it seems like a bizarre throwback to the Cold War when OS maps ignored even the most obvious military installations, on Ministry of Defence orders.

That obsession with secrecy ended in 1992, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, when OS began redrawing its maps to include all military sites except the most sensitive. All, that is, bar the road atlases available free online.

Try searching the Get-a-map service on, or on's site owned by Multi-media Mapping Ltd, for well-known sites like the chemical warfare research plant at Porton Down, Wiltshire, and you'll be disappointed. Get-a-map will also fail to find Menwith Hill, the electronic eavesdropping base run by the US National Security Agency, visible for miles around in North Yorkshire. It will helpfully say it "sounds like" 12 other places many miles away, such as Myddle in Shropshire or Mid Yell in Shetland.

Aldershot army base in Hampshire and RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, used by US B52 bombers during the Kosovo war, are also unmarked. Bad news if you're trying to get there for an airshow.

Likewise the Clyde naval bases at Faslane and Coulport in Argyll, west of Glasgow, which is Western Europe's largest nuclear submarine base. It dominates the local scenery, and includes more than 1,000 acres of good hill-walking fenced off by razor wire.

These omissions left Sean Phelan,'s founder, bemused. "It's fascinating," he said.

Ironically, his service includes the most detailed free mapping service on UK websites, able to track down someone's house by postcode. But he relies entirely on raw data supplied by the road atlas publishers Bartholomew's, owned by HarperCollins, and OS itself. To further confuse matters, Phelan's firm is sub-contracted by OS to provide its Get-a-map service.

Duncan Pickering, at Bartholomew's, insists that unlike picnic sites or historic monuments, military installations are of little interest to general road atlas users. "It's nothing shrouded in mystery, to be honest. Other large establishments like power stations aren't shown on any map in our road atlases."

At Ordnance Survey, the picture is more complex. A spokesman said the agency had long pressed the MoD to allow it to mark major military sites. "We made representations, and said where a site is slap bang beside a right of way, anyone can see it. It's absolutely barmy not to mention it."

Road atlases, he said, are different from standard OS maps, but eventually, the OS will be making all its maps digitally available, for a fee, from its website over the next year or so. "We've a policy of expanding mapping on the Internet, with the whole gamut of scales, down to phenomenal detail."

That would eventually include web access to their 230,000 extremely detailed maps, at 50 inches to the mile, currently sold to utility companies and architects. The free atlas service, he added, could soon include some military sites as it is being updated. Aldermaston is likely to go on, but for the others, it is far from clear. "There is no policy decision on this yet, but it may well be that with more detailed mapping, it may well go on."