Monday, February 12, 2007

Terrorists are using Google Earth?

The news have reported cases recently where Western military have raided terrorist lairs and found satellite images of sensitive sites from Google Earth. Governments are tasked with the awesome responsibility of protecting us from terrorist attacks. Sometimes, they turn to Google and ask for sensitive images to be removed or degraded. Is that the right approach?

First, some background. Google Earth is a digital globe on your personal computer. It combines satellite imagery, maps and Google search to bring the world's geographic information to your fingertips. I can still remember the first time I typed my home address into Google Earth and watched my computer screen zoom from space directly onto my home – even for someone used to technology, I just gasped. And I’m not alone. Google Earth is used by more than 100 million people.

Every user of Google Earth has his or her favorite examples, often including non-Google content called a “mash-up”. Here are mine. I watched the progress of the Tour de France across the lovely countryside of France. I saw the heart-breaking images of Banda Aceh before and after the tsunami, and learned that relief agencies used these images to plan their efforts. I studied the distribution patterns of avian flu and migration patterns of birds across the globe. And I look at my house and my neighborhood from the sky.

We all know that Google is working to help more people in more countries get access to more information. While we think about the security issues from giving people greater access to geographic data, we need to keep certain facts in mind: the imagery on Google Earth is not unique to Google. Google buys or acquires it from other companies. The imagery is not real-time, since the photographs are taken by satellites and aircrafts during the last three years and updated on a rolling basis. Commercial high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery of almost every country in the world is widely available from numerous different sources, and there are dozens of commercial satellite image providers in the world. Anyone who flies above or drives past a particular site can often get the same information. And several other sites, like Geoportail or MSN Virtual Earth, make similar satellite imagery available to their users.

The companies and governments that gather and distribute these
images are primarily responsible for addressing the security issues
they raise. And they sometimes address this problem by altering sensitive
images before distributing the data. Look at the center of The Hague, and you’ll see a building which has been erased from the image: Google posted the image the way it was received.

At the same time, it’s all too easy to image a slippery slope, where governments go too far in requesting that certain images be removed: should images be removed of disputed territories in the Kashmir? Of Israeli settlements on the West Bank? Of every British embassy around the world? Of entire regions of Russia? Of a politician’s holiday home? And which government and which department would decide which site is “sensitive”?

Governments control their airspace, and they can control which companies have the right to take aerial images, and to exclude certain zones. But satellite imagery from space is a different category. To take just one example, I think it’s a good thing that there are very detailed satellite images of North Korea on Google Earth, which the North Korean government would no doubt want to obscure.

Google has said publicly that it is always prepared to discuss security concerns directly with government officials. My personal view is that the right approach is generally not to change images, because I believe that more information gives people more choice, more freedom, and ultimately more power. And removing images from just one source is not a reliable basis for guaranteeing security.

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