National Counterterrorism Center: Urban Exploration Photos Pose Security Risk


Urban exploration photography has gotten quite a bit of publicity in recent years, with more and more photographers taking their cameras to off-limits and/or abandoned parts of their city in order to see and capture what most people never get a chance to. While it may be a fun pastime of practitioners and one that leads to beautiful images, not everyone is a fan.

The National Counterterrorism Center (NCC) warns that photographs shot by urban explorers could pose a national security risk by aiding terrorists in their surveillance and planning.

The poster released by the National Counterterrorism Center. Click to enlarge.

The poster released by the National Counterterrorism Center. Click to enlarge.

Research group Public Intelligence came across a poster (above) published by the NCC that warns against urban exploration and photography. It reads:

“Urban Explorers (UE) — hobbyists who seek illicit access to transportation and industrial facilities in urban areas — frequently post photographs, video footage, and diagrams online that could be used by terrorists to remotely identify and surveil potential targets. Advanced navigation and mapping technologies, including three-dimensional modeling and geotagging, could aid terrorists in pinpointing locations in dense urban environments.”

The poster also highlights three popular websites featuring urban exploration photography: Undercity, Silent UK, and Place Hacking.

You might remember Undercity from the TEDx talk by photographer Steve Duncan that we featured last month. Duncan brings his camera into the underbellies of major cities, exploring and photographing their sewer systems and underground passageways.

Rooftopping is another form of urban exploration in which photographers venture to the tops of skyscrapers, towers, and bridges in order to gain vantage points that are ordinarily off-limits to the general public.

If you practice urban exploration photography, you might want to start watching your back: the poster goes on to instruct the general public to report “suspicious” urban exploration activity to local law enforcement and to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.

(via Public Intelligence via Wired)

Image credit: eco·logical by erik_mauer

  • mosbag

    americans are such pussys… more then 11 years after the only important terrorist attack on their soil they still run around like chicken.. and forget about personal RIGHTS.
    all rights are pulled away by sopa , patriot act and co.
    cowards who give up their personal freedom for the illusion of safety

  • Upasaklaq

    think about the terrorism in europe over the last decades.
    but only after 9/11 and the paranoid americans our politicans joined the paranoia club.
    now they saw the opportunity to sell it to the public… enforcing laws who helped nothing but supressed personal freedom.
    politics want to turn every state into big brother. controling the masses, not terrorists are of interest here.
    fight for your rights.. don´t be stupid and silent or the european patriot act will steal away your freedom too!!

  • AndrewHD3

    so let’s end all the controversy and make Google maps illegal too

  • A_Lwin

    Breaking news: National Counter-Terrorism Center announces living people pose a security risk. A spokesperson for the NCTC stated during a press conference that all living people are a threat to national security, and people should report any living person they see to the closest law enforcement agency.

  • Adolf Hitler

    .. for immediate termination. Don’t forget to take with you all your family, personal property, valuables and clean underwear! Arbeit Mach Frei!

  • Mike

    Only internet people should be allowed to walk around out there. Like a bunch of zombies.

  • ennuipoet

    There are very good reasons why one shouldn’t do the things urban explorers do: you could die, you could get trapped, need rescue, and a responder could die, you could inadvertently damage infrastructure, you could get eaten by zombies, you could get shot by a cop, your eventual arrest will cost you money and jail time…but terrorism is NOT on the list. The NCTC doesn’t like photographers, maybe a photographer made one cry during a school photo day.

  • Heath

    It’s a good thing my images are covered by the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs-NoTerrorists Creative Commons licence.

  • anonymous therroarists

    actually, make everything illegal so anyone can be detained and
    imprisoned for any reason for an indefinite period of time.. because we
    don’t need freedom but security! hooray, and long live the therroarrism!

  • Bob Prangnell

    Terrorists could use “advanced navigation and mapping technologies”..come on. These people are stupid; savages that believe in a savage god. They can operate a phone just about.

  • Mark Dub

    That is completely offensive A_Lwin! Killing humans is just wrong and not something to be joked about. They should just blind everyone :)

  • larry the laffer

    that’s a bit dangerous underestimation, but quite right! :D

  • Michael Godek

    seriously??? At this rate, we might as well just say “don’t take any pictures at all, if you take pictures, the terrorists will know you exist and if they know you exist, there is a greater chance for an attack”

  • Palmipede

    Are you exposed to a continual 24/7 stream of recorded audio loops reminding you to report any suspicious or unattended baggage to surveillance personnel?

    Sure! I have a lot of unattended baggage around the waist, who should I report it to? Without humor, on the long run these loops can become quite demoralizing.

  • Kay O. Sweaver

    Ironically I know an explorer who was enlisted by MI6 to help them determine vulnerabilities in the tube and sewer systems. Its actually useful to have eyes and ears in these places.

  • Jenine Giommi

    til I saw the receipt which said $7473, I be certain …that…my friend woz like realey making money in there spare time at their laptop.. there neighbour had bean doing this 4 less than sixteen months and resantly cleard the depts on there mini mansion and purchased a gorgeous Lancia Straton. go to………. BIT40.ℂom

  • Leonardo Abreu

    The land of freedom…

  • derekdj

    That’s a pretty ridiculous and counter-intuitive analysis. Urban exploration actually “highlights” security flaws so agencies can take the appropriate action to plug the holes. Otherwise security professionals would live in ignorance of what “terrorists” might be seeing.

    It’s the philosophy behind Cyber Security firms hiring hackers to hack their systems, to discover where the flaws are. Counter-terrorism agencies should be leveraging the work urban explorers are doing with their photography.

  • Rob S

    #1 – this is stupid
    #2 – a lot of us “good guys” use said sites for our good guy work
    #3 – instead of going after these photographers we should be coopting them. They are far more likely to see actual bad actors than help potential bad actors
    #4 – any bad actor who relies on someone else to do their surveillance is my kind of terrorist – dumb
    #5 – this is stupid

    Sometimes my peers at the NCTC amaze me for all the wrong reasons

  • Lego Terrorist

    What about those whole cityscapes accurately recreated in Lego: obviously a terrorists elaborate planning mechanism. Folks, don’t photograph Lego cityscapes!

  • Matthew Wagg

    So America is now called land of paranoia instead of land of the free. I’m glad I live where the authorities are a little more level headed

  • Aaron

    First, SOPA didn’t pass. Please get your facts straight. Second, say what you will about Americans, but I proudly capitalize and punctuate my sentences, you dolt.

  • Anthony Harden

    At the end of the day all this makes me want to do is more urban exploration.

  • guest

    Okay here is the “Catch 22.”

    They think that “explorers” are the potential threat, but when something does happen who do they look for when it comes time to gather evidence? The explorers, the travelers, the photographers or now anyone with a cell phone or any camera in operation.

    In my hometown, an old childhood friend was murdered just a couple weeks ago while he was walking home from work. When the police scavenged the area for any evidence they turned to the neighborhood and anyone else who may have had any video of photos taken in the area around the time of the murder.

    Not sure if they received any, but they were looking for home video surveillance, dash cam videos, or any one who may have taken photos so that they may investigate or identify anyone who may have inadvertently saw anything.

    So for government agencies to pose this as a threat is also a slow blindfold for themselves.

    I also agree with derekdj, just like hackers expose security flaws in software, these urban explores often expose security flaws in urban areas.

    Sadly, if a person or group is up to bad intentions, they will find a way to carry out those intentions eventually. After all, security is fear-driven and usually just a deterrent, not a guarantee that everything is under control.

    Control is just a mindset.

  • Frederick Alfaro

    first off i am amercian and i know my government is the number one terrorist in the world, not only to enemies of our nation but our own people, most agencies these days see photographers as passive assistance to crimes, while i admit photo sites with serious geo tag support could be used to plan attacks i feel making life worth living thru passion and the creation/enjoyment of unique art should be prioritized over worrying “will i die today, tomorrow or the next day” few people have any power to affect how they die but we all can affect how we live

  • D.G. Brown

    Just tell the terrorists to use iOS maps and we’ll all be fine

  • agour

    Cool diagram, might put it on my wall.

    I go out and regularly do this sort of stuff.. I know if terrorists wanted to access these places they wouldn’t find it difficult! There’s no real skill to jumping a fence and running as fast as you can

  • Douglas Clark

    With that theory.. shouldn’t Google Maps and Street view be blocked as they provide images of the same sort of thing? I don’t need to break into an abandoned building overlooking a bridge to figure out how to cause harm.. I can log in with my Macbook Air at the local starbucks and enjoy a triple non fat soy chai latte while I plan my evil-doing…

  • Asta

    You should also use a spellchecker…

  • Gerv

    Lets slow down here a bit… Think… Most urban explorers do not geo tag their photographs. I have been exploring for two decades and I have never seen a photograph of a “high risk” area with a geotag or a map, or even a 3d model. This is false information by the NCC. Most of the people involved in urban exploration photography take photos of abandon location. (old mills, asylums and houses) Those locations do not aid terrorist in any way shape or form. Some explorer take photos of urban infrastructure, but they never publicly share the locations of the photos. Leaving it anyones guess where they were taken. Even if you knew where the photo was taken there is not much a terrorist could pull as far as information go’s from the photographs. Did you know that the MTA has a flickr account? and they post photos on a daily bases from inside the NYC subway tunnels. I guess they are aiding terrorism as well. Or what about Google earth or Bing maps? You can see everything, even in 3d and street mode??? What about the family that took a photo at time square and posted in online? Are they aiding terrorist as well? CNN or the History channel when they have an in depth show on american cities, buildings and bridges. If we let the NCC label urban exploration photography (a art form) as aiding terrorist, then why not say all photographs aid terrorism? The UE community is a very tight nit group. Having a few friendly eyes and ears in places that our government is blind to is a good thing, not a bad thing. As it is the NCC slogan “if you see something, Say something”

    I am an american and proud to be one (although that pride is slipping every time I hear things like this) Our elected officials work for the people, the people do not work for the elected representatives. hence the word “representatives” They represent us, they do not own us. Taking photographs is not a crime and the fact that they want our citizens to snitch when they see someone taking photographs in an urban setting is absurd. Taking photographs is an art, if we want to live in a country were or officials tell us what types of art is ok to practice and not to practice, well then, why did we fight WWII.

    My brother is in the US ARMY and a veteran of Afghanistan. My family has been through a lot as a result. If the NCC want to label me as aiding terrorist, well, let’s just say they are barking up the wrong tree. The NCC is sucking the soul right out of this country and isn’t that what the terrorist wanted in the first place?

  • Nicholas Gervin

    You could die driving a car. In fact more people die in car accidents every year than in the whole history of urban exploration. People may need rescue when they go for a hike in the woods, guess no one should do that as well. Responder die all the time in rescues Its tragic, but its part of the job they signed up for. Damage infrastructure? how does taking a photograph damage anything? Zombies… People get shot by cops every day. Every single day a cop shoots some in this country. Does that mean we should stop living in this country? NO. Arrest will cost money, lots of things cost money. To travel or take a vacation cost a lot of money. urban exploration is free. And if you have to spend a little money a bail, still cheaper than traveling to Italy or France a vacation.

  • francis estanislao

    terrorists dont need photographers, big cameras, long lenses or look at websites which hosts urban explorations. they only need to look at google map or use a mobile phone with a camera, you see when you spy on something you need to be discreet. nctc… EPIC FAIL!!!

  • alfred sanchez

    this is bull…. were on earth do my taxes go… they have to protect its own people …to much bull to much bull

  • PBKingman

    Some of these pictures make my testicles automatically withdraw up inside my pelvis where apparently they think they are safe from being attached to someone who falls a thousand feet or so to a quick but testicle smashing death on pavement below.

  • Mantis

    When you can’t attack the message, attack the grammar.
    Way to win the argument.