Security officials worry about Google Earth

Published 19 October 2006

Terrorists may use satellite images to identify targets and plan attacks, experts say; concern is global as Dutch, Russians, and others worry; democratizing Internet spreads access to high resolution photographs; rogue nations the big winners here

The other day, while looking for a new apartment, we came upon an interesting site that melds Google Earth’s mapping system with a database of local rent prices. The idea, naturally enough, is to see whether an advertised rate is reasonable or if a current rent is a rip-off. Such a service is just one of the many adaptive uses of Google Earth, a free Internet based application that provides detailed satellite images of almost any place on the planet at a resolution of only two meters. Yet Google Earth’s utility also has security planners nervous. After all, is it such a good idea that terrorists should have access to images only recently the tightly-held province of the National Security Agency? The government has already convinced Google to remove certain sensitive areas from its system, including the National Observatory, where the vice president resides (interestingly, the White House remains). Indian, Dutch, and Russian security officials have all expressed nervousness, too. Said Russian military expert, Lt.-Gen. Leonid Sazhin: “From now on international terrorists do not have to inspect the site of a would-be terrorist attack. An international company is doing the work for them”.

Even local planners have their concerns. When John Ebery, an enterprising Seattle resident concerned about traffic bottlenecks, created a program that brought together Google Earth with information from the city’s emergency dispatch service, the city eventually reprogrammed its data feed to make it impossible to use. Indeed, the feed was still available on the city’s Web site, but it no longer could be used in coordination with Google Earth. “That’s where the security issue comes in because it shows where all our resources are at one time on a map,” spokesman Helen Fitzpatrick said. Planners worry that terrorists will be able to pick up response patterns and thereby gain knowledge of how to maximize the damage of an attack.

What can be done? The Indian government has asked that Google consult more carefully with it before allowing its satellites to take pictures, and there is no doubt that Google is amenable to closing an eye when security needs are properly justified. Yet terrorists do not need Google Earth to tell them where the best targets are. Railway stations, nuclear reactors, and stadiums are all public knowledge, and often their architectural plans are known as well. The real worry, it seems to us, is not from terrorists but from rogue nations with limited satellite capabilities of their own. The Internet is said to have a democratizing effect, and one way it does so is by giving every country equal access to some of the best intelligence imagery around. That, we agree, is a problem, but it is not one that admits of a ready solution.

-read more in John Cook’s and Scott Gutierrez’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer report