Why your camera's GPS won't work in China (maybe)

If you've got a major-brand camera with a built-in GPS, don't plan on taking any geotagged photos in China. Chinese law prohibits mapmaking without a license, and most of the large camera manufacturers have complied with this regulation by quietly slipping a censorship function into the GPS -- when you take a picture, the camera checks to see if it's presently in China, and if it is, it throws away its GPS data, rather than embedding it in the photo's metadata. On Ogle Earth, Stefan Geens looks at how several different manufacturers handle this weirdness -- how they phrase it in their manuals, and what their cameras do when they run up against this limitation. It's a fascinating look at the interface between consumer electronics, user interface, and the edicts of totalitarian regimes. In some Nikon cameras, for example, the GPS does work, but all its measurements are shifted about 500m to the west (!).

Why does all this matter? Wherever local laws prohibit the sale or use of a personal electronics device able to perform a certain function, manufacturers have traditionally chosen not to sell the offending device in that particular jurisdiction, or — if the market is tempting enough — to sell a crippled model made especially for that jurisdiction.

For example, Nokia chose not to sell the N95 phone in Egypt when the sale of GPS-enabled devices there was illegal before 2009, whereas Apple opted to make and sell a special GPS-less iPhone 3G for that market. Early models of the Chinese iPhone 3GS lacked wifi, while the Chinese iPhone 4/4S has firmware restrictions on its Google Maps app.

The risk to consumers in freer countries is that personal electronics brands might be tempted to simplify their manufacturing processes by building just one device for the global market, catering to the lowest common denominator of freedom — especially if the more restrictive legal jurisdictions contain some of the most attractive markets, such as mainland China.

Still, in the absence of more information from Panasonic, Leica, FujiFilm, Nikon and Samsung, I can’t decisively say whether this is the business logic behind their decision to cripple the GPS in their cameras. And yet uncrippled GPS cameras from Sony and others are freely available for sale in China, for example on Taobao, China’s eBay...

Why do Panasonic, Leica, FujiFilm, Samsung and Nikon censor their GPS cameras? (Thanks, Jeffrey!)


  1. Question: How does the device know to turn GPS off without using it to find out where it is?

    1. Presumably, the GPS receiver still runs, performs a test to see if you’re in China, and then throws-away the location data before it reaches storage or the UI.

      In other words, the software is broken by design.
      There’s an argument for Open Source Software if there ever was one…

      I’ve heard that some GPS smartphones, which work fine at home, automagically do the 500 metre offset trick when brought into North Korea by tourists. It’s good enough for a very rough location, but annoying enough to break everyday navigation in a city.

      1. So a manufacturer makes a device which respects the local law, potentially keeping you out of jail and that’s a bad thing ? I could see an argument for allowing a manual override for people who want to knowingly break that law but as a default it’s sensible.

        1. On the other hand, rendering every tourist a criminal without their knowledge makes the law effectively unenforceable, as the enforcing it means plunging the tourism rate for the country in question, together with associated monetary losses. 
          Bootlicking corporations adhering to such law, while protecting a few individuals, can be argued to be aggravating the law’s damage.

  2. The USA turned off GPS selective availability (GPS data encryption) when the pentagon realized it made the military stronger to equip its troops with off the shelf GPS rather than try to procure enough of the decoder-ring-enabled mil-spec ones.

    Their time is gonna come.

    1. Another factor was that selective availability didn’t work very well. If I understand and remember correctly, you could defeat it by using a secondary antenna that would triangulate your position. It was expensive for the home user ($2k?) but, I’m told, worked well. So the upshot was that the only people being inconvenienced by selective availability were home users, while any foreign military could easily circumvent it.

    1. I’m testing it now.  In China with an android phone made in China (originally with Chinese firmware).

      Trouble is checking the metadata of the photos I just took.  I don’t have any method at the moment to send them to a pc.  Anyone know of an android app that shows the geolocation of pictures?

      Edit: Doh! I can’t load any new apps at the moment for the same reason I can upload photos. But I’d still be interested in any app suggestions.

  3. What you are missing is that a similar crippling has already been done at the chip level for many GPS solutions for years – to comply with US Law.  In particular – the Arms Export Control Act .

    This law classes any device (even an iPhone!) as a military weapon if it returns GPS data when moving faster than 1,000 knots  at an altitude higher than 60,000 feet.  (These are the ‘CoCom limits’ – presumably the fear is that a foreign power might strap an iPhone to the side of a ballistic missile and use it as a guidance system!)  This mean that many GPS chip manufacturers took the simple way out and simply stopped returning data at high altitudes – which balloon hobbyists found out the hard way.  If they didn’t cripple their GPS chips they’d be classed as a illegal arms exporter and be facing jail.


    1. A contemporary-ish phone with an uncrippled GPS function would actually make a moderately decent guidance computer. The idea that US export controls can keep them out of adversarial hands is the really silly part of that particular concern.

      Incidentally(aside from the obvious ‘non-US manufacturers’ one) contemporary computing power has opened another little loophole:

      http://www.sparkfun.com/products/10981  is not a GPS device. It’s a radio receiver that is nice and sensitive in the chunk of spectrum used by GPS and Galileo and dumps the largely unprocessed signal to your computer. Once that is available, you hit the books http://www.springer.com/birkhauser/engineering/book/978-0-8176-4390-4 and get to work…

      1. is not a GPS device. It’s a radio receiver that is nice and sensitive in the chunk of spectrum used by GPS and Galileo and dumps the largely unprocessed signal to your computer

        It’s really expensive, though… Parallax do some (far cheaper) GPS modules with open-source firmware that might be more accessible to hobbyists.

    2. You could probably work around that by putting the gps unit in a mini hyperbaric chamber, like a mason jar with a Schroeder valve attached to the lid pressurized by a mini bicycle pump, to fool it into thinking it is at a lower altitude.

      1.  Or you could send it spoofed GPS signals to trick it into thinking it is at a lower altitude than it actually is.

      2. I don’t think GPS receivers use pressure sensors to determine their altitude…not sure if serious…

  4. First it was that cell phones can detonate bombs. Then it was the idea of GPS as tracking your every (private) movement. Once I got over that, I decided to get an iphone. If being stuck with the lowest common denominator phone is the price I have to pay for China’s (relatively affluent) dissidents to be cloaked or displaced in a shield of inferior coordinates, so be it. Because when the robots come (and they will) their accuracy will be pin point, and as they say, “will not stop”. Who watches the watchers? Ware the drones!

  5. Use of GPS within the People’s Republic of China and near its’ borders is prohibited by the country’s legislature.

    WTF!  Talk about going beyond their authority with a gray selection of words.
    So if I’m standing with my GPS camera on a hill in northern Vietnam overlooking the border, some Chinese cop or army grunt can violate another country’s sovereignty by coming across to arrest me at gunpoint, then drag me to China when I don’t even have a visa?

    Camera makers should respond to this with a firm “We may or may not comply”.  But that ain’t gonna happen, now is it?

    1. That might just be a clumsy way of saying that GPS is disabled in China and nearby to give a margin of error so you don’t accidently get a reading while in China where it is illegal to.

      But even if the law does extend outside of the borders of China, that isn’t at all unusual. The US has plenty of laws that apply worldwide. Canada has some regarding war crimes as do some European countries. Many of these don’t require you to be a citizen of that country for you to be prosecuted under their laws (even the laws that extend outside the country). 

    2. It’s perfectly possible to commit crimes across a border, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that the offended party is going to be willing or able to overcome the jurisdictional obstacles to catching you.

      A law against mapping strikes me as totalitarian paranoia; but the fact that it forbids both mapping from just across the border and mapping from inside it is no sillier than the fact that throwing rocks at people across a border is no less illegal than doing so entirely domestically…

    3. I’d be curious, too, to see how far these companies go to play ball with the PRC’s sensitivities about its own borders and run the filters out to extend into where the PRC claims its borders ought to be say, with India or Pakistan.  God knows that GE makes sure that NBC Sports in its Olympics coverage never breathe the word “Taiwan” and instead go with that strange “Chinese Taipei” construct.  

    4. Probably because they model China as a polygon which is a hull of the actual border. Thus, you’re guaranteed to know when you’re inside China, but not necessarily when you’re outside.

  6. I’m SHOCKED that major corporations would collaborate with totalitarian governments to oppress ordinary people. SHOCKED, I tell you!

  7. Having iffy or no EXIF data in one country hardly classes a GPS as “crippled”, and I doubt it is exactly at the top of a dissident’s b*tch list when it comes to rights infringed in China.

    And since when did any corporation make 100% global versions of any electronics? If anything, the opposite is true – too many local variations, particularly for cell phones. Take a look at a Chinese laptop keyboard to see why that will never fly.

    First world problems, eh?

    1.  I was with you until the “first world problems” part. Besides the fact that that line is so tired, this really isn’t a first world problem since it speaks very loudly to the fact that restricting freedom in one part of the world affects people in other parts of the world.

      But you do bring up an interesting point about global versions of electronics. I remember a police scanner I bought in the late 90s that had a little jumper on the circuit board to bypass one of the American cellphone bands. A little snip snip opened that band (850 mhz if I remember correctly) right up…

  8. Having iffy or no EXIF data in one country hardly classes a GPS as “crippled”

    Actually, I think that is the very definition of a crippled GPS.

    How would you describe a GPS that does not return GPS data?

    1. As a ‘Differently Abled’ GPS with its own, equally valid, interpretation of heading and location that deserves validation and acceptance from its peers.

      People can be so insensitive.

  9. I used an iphone in China last year, and the GPS and geotagging worked fine.  Maybe I need a software update?

    1. Maybe your phone’s GLONASS-enabled?  Some are these days. Begs the question of whether GLONASS is being jammed too, along with GPS. Can’t tell from this article, since it seems to conflate generic location services with GPS proper… not the same.

    2. As the article mentions, the compass app in Chinese iPhones works fine. Chinese iPhone 4s are hardwired to use the Chinese version of Google Maps, which is offset by those random 500m. 

  10. Interesting. I actually experienced an off-shoot of this first-hand and didn’t look into what further implications there were.

    I did geological research in Thailand with help from a Thai university (Chiang Mai University). Their geology department gave me access to pretty much everything on their servers, including digital scans of the Thai military’s topographic maps.

    Why do they have the military’s topographic maps? Because it’s illegal to have maps with latitude and longitude marked on them past a certain degree of accuracy outside the military – so the ones you can buy regularly are incredibly crippled and essentially useless (I bought a bunch anyway because they’re cool and I don’t have paper copies of the military maps). Since geologists need these, they must have gotten special permission.

    The restriction is to limit the ability of drug traffickers to travel through the jungle in northern Thailand. But obviously, access to the maps is incredibly easy to gain and would pose no problem to criminals if it was so trivial for me to get them (and I still have them if any Asian drug traffickers are reading).

    I don’t know if Thailand has laws against GPS too, but if they do it’s widely ignored as you can buy GPS units – with high-quality maps – all over the place. I brought a high-end GPS unit with me to use myself, as well as my smartphone. So to state the obvious, preventing access to GPS units is pointless if you don’t also search everyone coming into the country!

    I was actually going to send an iPhone 3Gs I have (and never used) to a friend in China, but coincidentally, in the process of initially botching the jailbreak and unlock I managed to permanently disable the GPS. Considering Chinese customs probably screens everything mailed in, I wonder if it would have disappeared at customs (obviously they wouldn’t know the GPS doesn’t work).

  11. Did anyone notice that the notice said “Violations will be persecuted by PRC authorities!”.  Surely they meant “prosecuted”? …or maybe things are worse in China than we thought?

  12. The PRC is nothing but paranoid about being attacked. This is why they do not want GPS tagging inside of China. This just one example of collective guilt; most people would never really worry about this in the first place.

  13. Since when is looking at a map and placing a dot on it considered “MAPMAKING”?  WTF?  This is another outrageous example of STUPID.

    1. It would be like Google Street View, and then a few million factory workers could quickly draw up a map based on the images.

  14. In other news, the Son of Heaven has decreed that south-pointing chariots must have a 30-degree offset when towed within 200 li of the Forbidden City.

    1. Unless it is flying the crest of the Eternal Dragon, with official numbered seal of the Office of Chariot Registry and all valid licensure scrolls are carried by the driver, and he has no Charioteering While Intoxicated (CWI) citations within the last 6 months.

  15. It’s funny (though I know this is probably just an example of sampling bias) how you never hear about some authoritarian hellhole passing a law that makes you think “hm, that seems like a really good idea; more countries should consider legislation like that”

  16. I’m really not sure I would care all that much, but if someone really did, they could use the above information on how Nikon autocorrects (autoerrors? Dunno how to phrase that) to write a small script that corrects the coordinates in a batch of files after the fact. If Nikon GPS units just arbitrarily tack 500m westward onto the coordinates, it should be pretty easy to fix.

  17. Aren’t there little GPS fobs, or keychain like device that be turned on to track your location and then be used to sync up to the photo later? Surely someone must be making GPS chips that ignore this censorship requirement? (If there is I’d be willing to bet it would be made in China.)

  18. I encountered the bill-detection thing once when under pressure once to create a financial-themed poster. It included Canadian $20 bills, at three times life-size. I was completely floored when Photoshop wouldn’t allow me to use the image. I was furious, and had to redesign the entire thing.

    DRM, kids. Not even once.

  19.  Alright, “I can only assume that QR-coded anti-photography uniforms for
    privacy-conscious police brutality will be available any day now…” caught my eye. I thought that those screwy little QR spots just directed browsers to advertisers’ websites. Would you please explain how putting one on a jacket would make you unphotographable, please?

  20. I’ve always known about it – but even after spending a couple of years in the online gambling industry as a designer I never witnessed it ( I used a lot of stock that involved cash ). Feel like I’m missing out.

  21. Open-source image editors, such as GIMP, while not as feature-complete as Photoshop, do not have this limitation.

  22. That one was largely sarcastic; but the implementation would be functionally identical to the GPS ‘feature’ being discussed, or to the ‘EURion’ pattern that is already used to signal to conformant devices that they should not perform certain actions:

    The QR code would simply be an easily machine-readable ‘do not record’ flag. The device vendor, under some flavor of legal suasion, would produce firmware that refuses to dump a frame to flash if it contains such a tag.

    As with the other cases, this would be dependent on the device’s obedience; but (as with these other cases) that is apparently possible to secure…

  23.  Fascinating. I had no idea that you could do that. Um… So if someone paints a Do Not Record QR on the roof of their car, I wonder…

  24. If one fancies a prank, many recent color copiers will deliberately choke on the Eurion Constellation.

    According to an, um, friend, it is fairly simple to sneak this pattern into media that other people are expecting to be able to copy…

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