The mysterious user editing a global open-source map in China’s favor

Article by Vittoria Elliott and Nilesh Christopher Late last year, Nick Doiron spotted an article in The New York Times, detailing how China had built a village along the contested border with neighboring Bhutan. Doiron is a mapping aficionado and longtime contributor to OpenStreetMap (OSM), an open-source mapping platform that relies on an army of unpaid volunteers, just as Wikipedia does. Governments, universities, humanitarian groups, and companies like Amazon, Grab, Baidu, and Facebook all use data from OSM, making it an important tool that underpins ride-hailing apps and other technologies used by millions of people.

After reading the article, Doiron went to add new details about the Chinese village to OSM, which he expected would be missing. But when he zoomed in on the area, he made a peculiar discovery: Someone else had already documented the settlement before it was reported in the Times, and they had included granular details that Doiron couldn’t find anywhere else.

“They mapped the outlines of the buildings,” Doiron said, labeling one as a kindergarten, one as a police station, and another as a radio station. Even if the mysterious person had bought a satellite image from a private company, “I don’t know how they could have had that specific kind of information,” Doiron said.

That wasn’t the only thing that struck Doiron as strange. The user had also made the changes under the name NM$L, Chinese slang for the insult “Your mom is dead,” and linked to a Chinese rap music label that shares the same name. An accompanying bio hinted at their motives: “Safeguarding national sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity is the common obligation of all Chinese people, including compatriots in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan,” it read.

“Most people on OpenStreetMap don’t even have anything in their profile,” said Doiron. “It’s not like a social media site.”

As he looked deeper, Doiron discovered that NM$L had made several other edits, many of them along China’s border and in contested territories. The account had added changes to the Spratly Islands, an archipelago that an international tribunal ruled in 2016 was not part of China’s possible territorial claims, though it has continued to develop in the area. The account also drew along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates Indian and Chinese territory in the disputed Himalayan border region, which the two countries fought a war over in 1962.

What, Doiron wondered, is going on here? 

Anyone can contribute to OSM, which makes the site democratic and open, but also leaves it vulnerable to the politics and perspectives of its individual contributors. This wasn’t the first time Doiron had heard of a user making edits in a certain country’s favor. “I know there are pro-India accounts that have added things like military checkpoints from the India perspective,” he said….(More)”.