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Mapping the world's intel agencies: easy as Google

The Top Secret America investigation might be voluminous and mainstream, and Wikileaks might be spectacular, but mapping the world's intelligence agencies can also be as easy as ... Google.

Three 20-somethings in Portugal have purported to map the intelligence headquarters for more than a dozen countries, including the U.S., Israel, Albania, China, Cuba, Iran, Morocco and the U.K.

With more than 180 points, complete with flags of the countries, the three - who say they meet on the Internet -- spent three months on what they call "a simple but laborious effort" to map how "almost every country on Earth has someone, somewhere, collecting, processing, analyzing and disseminating intelligence."

Their map shows such intel spots as Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence Organization, "Her Majesty's Government Communication Centre" in the U.K., Nigeria's National Intelligence Agency, and the U.S. government's National Reconnaissance Office.

In an e-mail exchange, one of the map's authors told us a bit about herself. She's Ana Paula Coimbra, a 26-year-old clothing saleswoman who lives in Carnaxide, a town near Lisbon. She's quick to admit she's "not a member of any intelligence community," nor does she work for the Portuguese government or any European institution. But she does have a bachelor of arts in international relations. She created the Google mashup based on research from two friends she met on the Internet: Andre de Borges, a 24-year-old insurance broker, and Yannick Carvalho, a 25-year-old student.

Coimbra described herself and the others as the "type of people who at night talk in encrypted chat rooms about world events, espionage, geostrategy, read John Le Carre novels, read Jeff Stein's Spy Talk blog, and by day work like everybody else." She wrote, "Maybe we are spy buffs...and curious people."

How did they get the info for the points on the Google map?

Mostly from open sources, including official government websites and reports, newsletters, printed books and "information collected from newsgroups and online communities," she tells us. Other sources were people who live near some facilities in Spain, France, and South America.

Coimbra is quick to point out that "most of the locations are NOT a secret." She goes on to say that "even a person who doesn't care about politics or espionage can research that information." And she notes Google Maps is "very easy to operate" -- if you know a location, or have latitude-longitude coordinates, it is easy to insert text or images.

So why do it?

Their main objective, she said, is to show that every country has its own intelligence system. "Some intelligence agencies, services, departments and units are everywhere - some in our neighborhoods," Coimbra wrote in her e-mail.

She raises some interesting points: "I'm not against them, but I question their size, and how they hide themselves to the world. Why hide? Are they hiding from the terrorists or from the citizens?"

S she's received some feedback on her Google map so far. Some people questioned why their country wasn't on the list; others, mostly Israeli citizens, protested their country's inclusion.,

Still, their work hasn't raised too many eyebrows. As of Sunday, she said, "Nobody from any intelligence circle has contacted us."

Well, at least not yet.

By Dana Hedgpeth  |  August 2, 2010; 10:13 PM ET
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