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.
Another longtime contributor to OSM in India, who asked to remain anonymous because they have faced retaliation for their mapping work, said that while they had not heard of any specific concerted effort to influence OSM, it wouldn’t surprise them if one were to be discovered. Other major open-source projects, like Wikipedia, have already been the target of similar attacks.
A few years ago, the Indian OSM contributor said, they received a call from the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala, inviting them to hold a workshop on editing Wikipedia. “[They told me] that they detected a lot of mainland Chinese influence on Wikipedia articles of Tibetan topics, which was adding a certain bias,” they said. The impact of such changes could be profound in shaping the worldview of Wikipedia readers. “It was happening slowly over time, and, unless you were really tuned into it, one could not detect it,” they said.
The contributor believes OSM is similarly vulnerable. “It’s happening. It will continue to happen, maybe in more deeper ways than we ever imagined,” they said.
A spokesperson for OSM referred Rest of World to a 2013 policy document titled “Information for officials and diplomats of countries and entities with disputed territories,” which states that the organization records one set of boundaries that “in OpenStreetMap contributor opinion, is the most widely internationally recognized.” According to the policy, map makers can ignore this set of boundaries if they choose and substitute a different one more appropriate for their needs.
Altering OpenStreetMap to advance national interests could be considered an extension of what experts call “cartographic warfare” when countries enforce territorial claims via maps. “In the ’50s and ’60s, China and India were engaged in this and would publish competing maps to bolster the strength of their claims to territory,” said M. Taylor Fravel, director of the Security Studies Program at MIT, who has studied China’s borders and territorial disputes. “What we are seeing now in open source I would characterize as the latest manifestation of the ways in which states have sought to advance their claims through maps and mapmaking.”
In recent years, the Chinese government has become more aggressive in staking claims to areas it views as its own territory. Fravel said that’s not only a reflection of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s defense policy but also China’s rising status as a world power, one more capable of asserting itself on the global stage. The Chinese government even regulates which world map can be used inside the country, “and the authorized map only shows one set of boundaries, which are what China believes its boundaries to be,” Fravel said.
In the South China Sea, the Chinese government has built military structures on disputed islands claimed by other nations and used what it calls the nine-dash line — an ill-defined boundary that asserts its own maritime claims, which an international tribunal ruled is invalid. In the past year, China tightened its grip on Hong Kong and built villages inside what Bhutan considers its territory. After decades of relative calm, India-China relations hit rock bottom in June of 2020, when violent clashes broke out in the Galwan River valley, a disputed border in the Himalayas, killing at least 20 Indian troops. A few months later, Chinese troops reportedly intruded on the Indian side of the nearby Pangong Tso lake region, another place NM$L has edited on OpenStreetMap.
When border disputes happen, it presents a tricky problem for tech companies that incorporate maps into their products. National narratives tend to clash with services geared toward a global audience, such as Google Maps. Companies have handled the issue by altering the boundaries shown to users based on where they’re located. For instance, Apple and Google Maps display Crimea as part of Russia to Russia-based users, even though the United Nations passed a resolution urging states not to acknowledge Russia’s claim to the region, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Where and how the border appears between India and China also depends on which country you’re in.
OpenStreetMap is built around a single world map, but it also similarly has different versions that reflect a particular country’s territorial perspective, like OpenStreetMap.in, which shows maps aligned with the Indian government’s view of the world. Users, though, still have control over what map they want to see. “Both borders exist in the database, and it’s up to you which one you’re seeing or if you’re seeing both of them at the same time,” said Doiron.
But as the OSM contributor from India pointed out, it’s not always easy for the people who edit the platform to put aside their own backgrounds and views. Throughout their childhood in India, the contributor said, they were taught a particular narrative about the country and its borders. It wasn’t until their late teens, when they saw a different map of India online, that they learned there was an alternative reality out there.
It felt like a revelation. “I don’t know the kind of feeling to describe it, but it really hits your identity,” the contributor, who now works for a mapping company, said. “You just reject anything else different from what you were conditioned to [believe], so it evokes a strong emotional response.”
The contributor said they think many people can’t easily accept a version of the world that’s different from the one they have come to view as the truth. That might very well be the case for NM$L, who told Rest of World in a direct message, “Almost every Chinese [person] knows that protecting territorial integrity is our duty.” The user said they respect facts on OpenStreetMap and are only trying to “map the fact I know in [a] disputed area.”
The user said the details they added to the Bhutan border village had come from a photo on Kunlunce.com, a Chinese news site that aggregates state media content. Just like Doiron, NM$L was using news articles to inform their additions to OSM. But the news they were reading just happened to tell vastly different stories about what country the village was really in.
“I think one of the big issues is a lot of the technology is thought of and built in Silicon Valley and the U.S., and it goes to the whole world,” said the OSM contributor in India. “Not everyone is sensitized to how important these boundaries and disputed boundaries are, because in the U.S. and the Western world, the boundaries are fairly intact.”
For their part, the contributor said that the mapping company they work for double checks any data it pulls from OSM, specifically to make sure it’s representing sensitive areas with care. They said the most common form of map vandalism, though, doesn’t rise to the level of serious geopolitics. “[It’s] people drawing a penis,” they said. “It happens about once a week.”