I spy with my little laptop

It's supposed to be a tool for fun and research, but now governments fear it may be helping terrorists. Jimmy Lee Shreeve zooms in on Google Earth
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The Independent Online

When Google launched its global location tool, Google Earth, in June, we were suddenly able to view full-colour satellite photos of thousands of far-flung areas from around the globe. Now, though, government officials from a variety of countries are sounding the alarm over the high-resolution displays of government buildings, military sites and disputed borders.

It brought the whole world to our fingertips. All you have to do is download the free software (currently Windows, but Mac is coming) and type in any street address in Britain, Canada or the United States, the longitude and latitude of any area, or even terms such as "pyramids" or "Taj Mahal", and within seconds the location comes into focus. You can even zoom in close enough to make out individual cars in a driveway.

Google pitches Google Earth as a useful teaching and navigational tool that also offers the sheer entertainment value of flying over high-resolution images of Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and the pyramids. Not to mention giving us a bird's-eye view of our own backyards and those of anyone else we might be interested in. But governments from around the world are vociferously complaining that the easy availability of high-resolution satellite images compromises their national security.

In India, President APJ Abdul Kalam expressed concern that terrorists could use Google Earth to plan assaults on the Indian parliament, the President's house and government offices in New Delhi, all of which show up clearly in Google Earth's photos. India is also sensitive because of its long-standing border dispute with Pakistan in Kashmir. Since 1967, it has banned aerial photographs of structures such as bridges, ports, refineries and military installations. "[The program] disproportionately endangers developing countries, which are already in danger of attacks," Kalam said in October, at a meeting of police officials in Hyderabad. He went on to call for stronger laws to govern the release of such sensitive materials.

South Korea also weighed in against Google Earth after officials noticed the service provides images of the presidential Blue House and military bases. Because South Korea is still technically at war with North Korea, they were fearful the pictures will give its communist neighbour the advantage. A presidential spokesperson, Kim Man-Soo, said Google Earth "sparked security concerns", adding that "as [Google's] satellite photos are beyond our control, we are in discussion with US authorities". Another Korean government official, however, said: "It all depends on the resolution of the pictures. Just because there is a picture of a naval port does not mean the whole security system is on alert, but if the resolution is greater than six metres [20 feet], security could be an issue."

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) also felt the need to ask Google to consider censoring what it sees as sensitive information. "We have approached Google to find out how the technology is changing and what sort of information might be available in future," says ANSTO's chief of operations, Dr Ron Cameron.

"The current level of information disseminated is not something that really concerns us, but we thought it would be prudent to find out where the technology was going.

"At the moment it only shows buildings and we're about protecting what's in the buildings."

Not long after going live, Google Earth was dubbed a terror tool by two members of the Dutch parliament. In a letter dated 12 August, legislators Frans Weekers of the free-market VVD party and Aleid Wolfson of Labour, asked: "Should the Dutch government consider taking measures [against Google Earth] and "if not, why not?"

But what recourse have these nations got? They could start by requesting that the US Government asks its regulators to crack down on Google. But, according to Roy Williamson, a research professor at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, this isn't likely to meet with much success. "From a legal standpoint, they haven't got a leg to stand on," he says. "There's no law on the books about this, so the government's not likely to limit the availability of these images."

Andrew McLaughlin, of Google, said his company have recently been in discussions with a few countries over their concerns, including India and South Korea, but said none of the talks had led to requests for images to be removed.

Another option would be for the countries to take their grievances to the United Nations. A 1986 UN resolution broadly states that data-gathering activities such as satellite photography "shall not be conducted in such a manner detrimental to the legitimate rights and interests of the sensed [satellite scanned] state". But would it work? Ram Jakhu, a professor of space law at McGill University in Montreal, thinks so. "The UN is under obligation to make sure these images are not being distributed in a manner other countries consider harmful," he says. "It's in the interest of all countries for these complaints to be addressed."

In truth, Google has little cause to worry. The majority of the images it displays on Google Earth come directly from government sources such as the US Department of the Interior and the US Geological Survey's Landset, which have long standing open data policies. Others come from open access commercial sources such as Digital Globe and MDA Federal Inc. Google holds no proprietary right to any of the photos it displays, and many were part of the public domain long before Google Earth came on the scene. More than 3,000 satellites currently orbit the planet collecting photographic and other data. Much of it is accessible to any interested researcher or buyer.

"High quality satellite data has been commercially available for many years," says Michelle Petrovich, a spokesperson for the US Department of Homeland Security. "We've always taken that into consideration in coming up with security measures."

An e-mail circulating on the internet, purporting to be from a US marine who served in Iraq, however, suggests that al-Qa'ida is using Google Earth as an intelligence tool in its fight against the US military. Under the heading "Bad guy weapons", the marine says: "Bad guy technology: Simple yet effective. Most communication is by cell and satellite phones, and also by e-mail on laptops. They [the Zarqawi al-Qa'ida group and others] use hand-held GPS units for navigation and Google Earth for overhead views of our positions.

"Their weapons are good, if not fancy, and prevalent," he says.

The authenticity of this e-mail remains in debate. But Bret Taylor, a product manager at Google, stresses that the company is more than willing to negotiate with foreign officials who have concerns about Google Earth being used as a terrorist tool. "We take security issues very seriously and are willing to talk with representatives from individual countries," he says, and is also at pains to point out that, besides being an educational and recreational tool, Google Earth provides an important public service: "During Hurricane Katrina, we released detailed images of the affected areas, and rescuers were able to save lives as a result."

Google Earth is also an incredibly useful tool for authors and journalists. I'm currently writing a book called Blood Rites (Random House 2006), which investigates cases of human sacrifice from all over the world. I don't have the time or the resources to visit all the locations I'm writing about. So I'm using Google Earth to make sure I get my geographic details right.

Google Earth