Google Earth as Terrorist Tool?

Indian president Abdul Kalam has expressed concern over the potential use of satellite image and mapping software – such as Google Earth – by terrorists:

At a meeting Saturday of top police officials in Hyderabad, Kalam said he worried that “developing countries, which are already in danger of terrorist attacks, have been singularly chosen” for providing high resolution images of their sites.

The governments of South Korea and Thailand and lawmakers in the Netherlands have expressed similar concerns.

South Korean newspapers said Google Earth provides images of the presidential Blue House and military bases in the country, which remains technically at war with communist North Korea. The North’s main nuclear facility at Yongbyon is among sites in that country displayed on the service.

The Google site contains clear aerial photos of Parliament House, the Rashtrapati Bhawan and surrounding government offices in New Delhi. There are also some clear shots of defence establishments in India.

Philipp Lenssen points out some of the silliness in this concern, but there must be some validity, since even the roof of the White House is digitally hidden in the Google Maps software.

Google’s response, in part, is that “the software uses information already available from public sources and the images displayed are about one to two years’ old, not shown in real time.” Granted the age of the images might limit their usefulness to aspiring terrorists, the defense that the images are “already available from public sources” is weak: while a satellite image of a defense building in India might have been publicly available in recent years, without such an admittedly powerful and cool tool as Google Earth, I would’ve had no idea how to get access to such a public image. Google, by amassing all the various publicly-available images and making them easy to navigate, enables such security concerns.

UPDATE: Here’s the Slashdot conversation on the topic.

UPDATE: It seems the Register has been discussing Google Earth’s “threat to democracy” for some time now (here and here). In fact, they’ve just ended a “Spot the Black Helicopter” competition, where enterprising Google Earth users can submit screenshots of the most secret military installations they can find.

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