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Terrorist Use of Google Earth Raises Security Fears

Kelly Hearn
for National Geographic News
March 12, 2007
 
Part of the Digital Places Special News Series
More Digital Places Stories>>

Detailed Google Earth images of British military bases were found in the homes of Iraqi insurgents, a London newspaper reported in January.

A British army official told the Daily Telegraph that the confiscated images showed Land Rovers, buildings, tents, and bathroom facilities inside the military compound in Basra, Iraq.

British officials reportedly complained to California-based Google, and the software firm replaced the images with pre-war data on its downloadable globe.

While the extent of insurgents' use of Google Earth is unknown, the news underscored what some experts see as a growing conflict between national security needs and the software's high-resolution, satellite view of the planet.

Ram Jakhu, a law professor at McGill University in Canada, called the move a "justified reaction, given that the issue of national security is of paramount importance."

Governments should have laws supporting freedom of information, including the right to snap and disseminate photos, he said. But there are limits.

"Google shouldn't spy for terrorists," Jakhu said.

Neither Google nor British military officials responded to interview requests.

Fine Resolution

Google Earth is made up of declassified satellite and aerial images that are stitched together to give users a 3-D view of the planet.

For many locations the images have a resolution as fine as 49 feet (15 meters) per pixel—enough to see individual streets, distinguish buildings, and even make out the color of automobiles.

(Zoom in on African wildlife with a Google Earth map of Chad's Zakouma National Park.)

Though sensitive locations such as the U.S. White House are intentionally blurred, the desktop software has spawned complaints from security experts.

Critics say it will facilitate terrorists wanting detailed looks at potential targets, such as nuclear power plants and government installations.

The software might also put expensive homes or jails at risk of being targeted by criminals, critics say.

"In practical terms, I think anything above 5-meter [16-foot] resolution should be freely shared—as long as it is two or three years old, as long as it's not real-time data," Jakhu said.

"Google [Earth] doesn't use real-time data, and it shouldn't."

(Related news: "Privacy Fears Intensified by Tech That Knows Where You Are" [October 20, 2006].)

Other security experts say that worries about Google images are overblown.

"The fact that the enemy is fascinated by such imagery does not demonstrate that they have gained some advantage from it," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

For example, Pike said, even without Google technology at their disposal, insurgents "do not seem to have displayed any difficulty in finding our troops in Iraq."

Pike also noted that Google Earth imagery lacks a date stamp, which puts an image's accuracy in doubt, and that military encampments are in a constant state of flux.

Perhaps even more telling is the fact that U.S. defense officials have found no reason to raise alarms over Google Earth images.

"The U.S. Defense Department evidently decided this imagery was not a significant security risk, since they have the legal authority to prevent its release," he said.

"This is not an administration that is a font of openness," he added, "but rather tends to err strongly in the direction of not releasing information."

International Laws

Still, several other governments and companies have made moves to require Google to limit the level of detail their images display.

When Google Earth was launched in 2005, officials at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization called on the company to pull images that showed its facility.

The officials later backtracked, saying that the images were dated and of sufficiently poor quality that they would not count as a safety risk.

Last year two Dutch lawmakers pushed for their government to address the virtual globe's potential threat to its nuclear reactors.

At the time Google spokesperson Catherine Betts told the Associated Press that the system's benefits "far outweigh any negatives from potential abuse."

"Google Earth is built from information that is already available from both commercial and public sources," Betts said. "The same information is available to anyone who flies over or drives by a piece of property."

The governments of France and India have also appealed to Google to limit access to some images because of security concerns.

Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, who directs the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi, said there is "little if any directly applicable international law" governing the Google Earth controversy.

The portal pulls from several types of imagery, she said, which kicks in different legal standards.

"Air and space are two different legal regimes," she said. For example, the United Nations Remote Sensing Principles apply to international use of satellite imagery among UN members.

The principles state that sensing activities "shall not be conducted in a manner detrimental to the legitimate rights and interests of the sensed State," such as the use of imagery for economic espionage.

Aerial photography, however, is a matter of national and local law, she said.

"What we are seeing is not so much the application of specific laws as it is negotiations between the Web portals and the interested nations involved," Gabrynowicz said. "There has to be discussion about the potential threats and whether they are credible or not.

"I believe you should start with a presumption of openness," she continued. "That is, all things being equal, you presume data and images should be available. Then you go from there on a case by case basis."

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