Google Maps error sparks international feud

Faith Merino · November 5, 2010 · Short URL:

Nicaragua invades Costa Rica, blames Google Maps


It finally happened.  All of the doom and gloom spelled out for a high-tech future in the hands of irrational people has finally materialized: a border error on Google Maps resulted in a Nicaraguan military invasion of Costa Rica.

The error in question was a simple border rendering that was off by 3,000 meters, suggesting that a strip of land that was previously thought to belong to Costa Rica was, in fact, the rightful property of Nicaragua.  This error prompted Nicaraguan military commander Eden Pastora to move troops into the area near San Juan Lake, where the Nicaraguan army has been accused of setting up camp, removing Costa Rican flags and replacing them with Nicaraguan flags, dredging a nearby river, and dumping the sediment into Costa Rican territory, like any other jerk neighbor.

Pastora laid the blame squarely on Google’s shoulders, telling reporters from the Costa Rican newspaper La Nación: “See the satellite photo on Google and there the border can be seen.  In the last 3,000 meters, the two margins are of Nicaragua.  There, towards the Castle, the border is the right margin, it’s clear.”

So, basically, this is what happened: Pastora woke up one morning, sat down at his desk with his soy chai latte, checked his Gmail and Facebook newsfeed, tweeted about what a horrible week he’s had and how Friday won’t come quick enough, and then saw that a friend of his invited him out to this poppin’ new club in Costa Rica.  Pastora looked on Google Maps to find the quickest route and was shocked to see that the club wasn’t actually in Costa Rica, but Nicaragua!  He and his friend then waged a Twitter battle over whether the territory belonged to Nicaragua or Costa Rica (his friend showed him the Bing map which clearly showed that the club was in Costa Rica).  So Pastora decided to take action and make the strip of land official Nicaraguan territory.

Miraculously, no lives were lost in the invasion, so it’s okay to make fun of it.

"We are aware of the issue and are currently investigating it,” a Google spokesperson said via email.  “If we determine that our map is incorrect we will update the data as quickly as possible." 

In a televised statement, Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla told her countrymen: “Let us be calm and firm, amid the outrage that these events provoke within us."  It is worth noting that Costa Rica has no formal military, having disbanded the military in 1948 following a disputed election that ended with 2,000 people dead.  The country maintains only domestic police forces.

And then there’s the not-so-funny tension that this dispute has created between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, with the Nicaraguan ambassador to the OAS, Denis Moncada, blasting Costa Rica for its allegations.  “Nicaragua has not violated the sovereignty of Costa Rica,” Moncada told reporters.  “Nor is the dredging, in Nicaraguan territory, affecting Costa Rican land. With these statements, Costa Rica has broken the diplomatic equilibrium that traditionally exists between the two nations."

Such international conflicts can hardly be pinned on Google, but it does raise some interesting questions regarding Google’s status as an international presence.  The very fact that a military invasion could easily be blamed on a Google error suggests that the company has a responsibility for accuracy that carries global weight.

Indeed, this is not the first time that Google has been criticized for border errors on Google Maps.  Earlier this year, Cambodia complained loudly of an error in a Thai/Cambodian border rendered in Google Maps.  The border has been in dispute for over three years, so the letter from Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, calling Google “radically misleading,” “professionally irresponsible,” and “devoid of truth and reality,” should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

At best, Google is just a harmless tech firm minding its own business in the Silicon Valley; at worst, it’s a creator and destroyer of nations.

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