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Google Earth asked to back off

 
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User ID: 55637
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12/22/2005 10:19 AM
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Google Earth asked to back off
[link to www.sfgate.com]

When Google introduced Google Earth, free software that marries satellite and aerial images with mapping capabilities, the company emphasized its usefulness as a teaching and navigation tool, while advertising the pure entertainment value of high-resolution flyover images of the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and the pyramids.

But since its debut last summer, Google Earth has received attention of an unexpected sort. Officials of several nations have expressed alarm over its detailed display of government buildings, military installations and other sensitive sites within their borders.

India, whose laws sharply restrict satellite and aerial photography, has been particularly outspoken. "It could severely compromise a country's security," V.S. Ramamurthy, secretary in India's federal Department of Science and Technology, said of Google Earth.

Similar sentiments have surfaced in news reports from other countries. South Korean officials have said they fear that Google Earth lays bare details of sensitive military installations. Thai security officials said they intended to ask Google to block images of vulnerable government buildings.

But there is little they can do, it seems, but protest.

Google Earth is the most conspicuous recent instance of increased openness in a digitally networked world, where information that was once carefully guarded is now widely available on personal computers. Many security experts agree that such increased transparency -- and the discomfort that it produces -- is an inevitable byproduct of the Internet's power and reach.

American experts in and outside government generally agree that the focus on Google Earth as a security threat appears misplaced, as the same images that Google acquires from a variety of sources are available directly from the imaging companies, as well as from other sources. Google Earth licenses most of the satellite images, for instance, from DigitalGlobe, an imaging company in Longmont, Colo.

"Google Earth is not acquiring new imagery," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, which has an online repository of satellite imagery. "They are simply repurposing imagery that somebody else had already acquired. So if there was any harm that was going to be done by the imagery, it would already be done."

Google Earth was reintroduced as a free downloadable desktop program in June. It consists of software that can be downloaded onto a computer and used to "fly over" city streets, landmarks, buildings, mountains, forests and Gulf Stream waters. Type in any street address in the United States, Canada or Britain, or the longitude and latitude for any place and the location quickly zooms into focus from outer space.

It was in the 1990s that the federal government started allowing commercial satellite companies to make and sell high-resolution images, to allow U.S. companies to compete in a growing market.

But a number of security restrictions apply to those companies. For instance, U.S. law requires that images of Israel shot by U.S.-licensed commercial satellites be made available only at a relatively low resolution. Also, the companies' operating licenses allow the U.S. government to put any area off limits in the interests of national security. A 24-hour delay is mandated for images of especially high resolution.

Vipin Gupta, a security analyst at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, said the time delays were crucial, saying that in the national security sphere much can change between the time an image is taken and when it is used by the public.

"You can get imagery to determine whether there is a military base or airfield, but if you want to count aircraft, or determine whether there are troops there at a particular time, it is very difficult to do," Gupta said. "It's not video."

Andrew McLaughlin, a senior policy counsel at Google, said the company had entered discussions with several countries, including Thailand, South Korea and, most recently, India.

India may be particularly sensitive to security issues because of its long-running border disputes with Pakistan, its rival nuclear power, and recurring episodes of terrorism. Since 1967, it has forbidden aerial photographs of bridges, ports, refineries and military establishments, and outside companies and agencies are required to have those images evaluated by the government.

Ramamurthy, the Indian science official, acknowledged that "there is very little we can do to a company based overseas and offering its service over the Internet."

But Maj. Gen. M. Gopal Rao, India's surveyor general, said the Indian government had sent a letter asking Google "to show sensitive sites, which we will list -- areas such as the presidential residence and defense installations -- in very low-resolution images."

McLaughlin said he had not yet seen such a letter; he said talks with India had centered specifically on images of the Kashmir border, long disputed by India and Pakistan.

Meetings with Indian officials or those from other nations have yet to result in a request that Google remove or downgrade any information, McLaughlin said. Nor, he said, has the U.S. government ever asked Google to remove information.

The same cannot be said for Pike, whose Web site has images of nuclear test sites and military bases in much sharper focus than can be found on Google Earth.

Last year, Pike said, he was asked by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, an arm of the Defense Department, to remove from his site some of the maps of cities in Iraq that the Coalition Provisional Authority had created for planning cell phone service.

Pike said he had complied, but added that the incident was a classic example of the futility of trying to control information.

"To think that the same information couldn't be found elsewhere was not a very safe assumption," he said.
Anonymous Coward
User ID: 56050
United Kingdom
12/22/2005 06:56 PM
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Re: Google Earth asked to back off
Are these people morons? Do they seriously think that their enemies will eb relyingon Google earth for their intelligence and photos?

They've already got far better and more detailed images than the ones Google has.
Miscreant

User ID: 278
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12/22/2005 06:57 PM
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Re: Google Earth asked to back off
I am the eye in the sky looking at you
I can read your mind
I am the maker of rules
I can cheat you blind
99.999% of what affects our reality will be undetectable by our senses. Man must learn to think for himself rather than follow blindly what he has been taught.

-Buckminster Fuller
tough
User ID: 11190
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12/22/2005 06:58 PM
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Re: Google Earth asked to back off
And if they never thought about using google earth before to help in dirty work, now they know about it.
Anonymous Coward
User ID: 1433
United States
12/22/2005 07:28 PM
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Re: Google Earth asked to back off
Google will own us all damned
Anonymous Coward
User ID: 55487
United States
12/22/2005 08:07 PM
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Re: Google Earth asked to back off
I am the maker of rules

*Dealing with fools*

I can cheat you blind

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