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The Islamic State Has Spread to Moscow, Says Confused Google Maps

In what appears to be the result of a prank, a Google Maps search for the Islamic State's Russian acronym pinpoints a state-run television station in Moscow.

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Russian speakers searching the web for the Islamic State may find it in an unusual place: The offices of a state-sponsored television station in Moscow, at least if they use Google Maps.

The TV station that pops up when users search for IGIL, the Russian acronym for the Islamic State, is Zvezda, which is run by Russia’s Ministry of Defense.

It is not clear why the state-run television station matches up with the extremist group’s Russian acronym or how long it’s been labeled that way. Moscow is allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and in September launched an airstrike campaign in Syria designed to prop up the Syrian leader, who is threatened by both U.S.-backed rebels and the Islamic State.

But the mapping trick was likely the work of a prankster who either took advantage of apparent loopholes in Google’s Map Maker tool, which was temporarily shut down in May, or manipulated data in Google Maps itself.

Map Maker was launched in 2008 to allow locals to keep maps updated with the newest information. But it has proven fertile ground for mischief. This May, after a hacker manipulated an aerial shot of Pakistan to include a drawing of a robot peeing on the Apple logo, Google shut Map Maker down.

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And that’s not the only time Google Maps has proven itself particularly vulnerable to pranks. One hacker notoriously manipulated the hacker program so that a search for racial slurs brought up the White House. Another moved a real snowboard shop called “Edwards Snow Den” to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in a reference to the famous American whistleblower now living in Russia.

But other moves were more worrisome: Another hacker once added fake phone numbers to the Google Maps results of the headquarters of the FBI and Secret Service so people calling those organizations had their communications recorded.

When Google relaunched Map Maker this August, they did so cautiously, and even selected regional leads to moderate all changes in a particular geographical area. Map Maker is currently available in 51 countries, including Russia.

But clearly there are still some shortcomings. In this case, Foreign Policy was not able to determine whether the Islamic State search change was accomplished using Map Maker or the result of a hack and Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Map data: ©2015 Google; Twitter

Megan Alpert is a fellow at Foreign Policy. Her previous bylines have included The Guardian, Guernica Daily, and Earth Island Journal. Twitter: @megan_alpert
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