Saturday, November 29, 2008

Google Earth: a terrorists' best friend?

Residents of India, Indian expatriates and freedom loving peoples around the world are mourning the loss of nearly 200 lives in the terrorists attacks in Bombay, the Indian financial capital. The best coverage of the attacks has (not surprisingly) come from The Times of India.

One Times report said that nine of the 16 fidayeens had lived in Mumbai to recce (reconnoitre) the terrain. Another report said “ the ten terrorists had not come to Mumbai before this to conduct any 'recce' and they had learnt about the locations with the help of Google Earth.”

I tend to believe the former report. A computer rendition is no substitute for a face-to-face visit, and it’s easy enough for unarmed foreign nationals to visit any democratic society (particularly, as it appears here, there are plenty of resources to buy forged passports). Also, the terrorists have a strong incentive to give misleading information about their prior visits, to discourage attempts to identify terrorist plots before they happen.

Still, this highlights the dilemma that Google Earth/Google Maps (and its Microsoft and Yahoo counterparts) face in making available information that might be used for deadly purposes. As Randy Stross notes in Planet Google (pp. 147-148), this exact controversy came up with both US and foreign government facilities when Google Maps was introduced.

One example cited by Stross was the use of Google Earth in a plot to blow up JFK airport in New York City, which brought requests for mapping companies to work with US and local law enforcement officials. Foreign security official had long complained about Google’s role; as a FSS (née KGB) analyst said:

Terrorists don't need to reconnoiter their target. Now an American company is working for them
Despite such complaints, Google Maps still provide aerial photos of sensitive sites such as the French defense ministry. Even if Google Earth does not (as one humorist suggested) provide real-time imagery, Google (and others) provide plenty of pictures that would be hard (if not impossible) to obtain by a terrorist or other non-governmental attacker.

It’s one thing to say that “everybody’s doing it” and thus no individual firm faces any need for self-restraint on sensitive locales. On the other hand, as more crimes (or military attacks) are committed using such tools, there will be public pressure to do something about this problem.

1 comment:

rjservant said...

I think this stems from the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" canon.

For the last couple thousand years, if people have wanted to cause destruction and loss of life, they have utilized whatever means they can to meet those ends. if you take away one tool they will find another. For every step we take forward as a society, someone is going to be around to take it a step backwards.

While restricting google earth might take away another tool, it doesen't take away the collective intention of the terrorists. That is the danger, not the tools they use.