By: Riley Pratt
On November 26, 2008, more that 170 people were killed in terrorist attacks at several locations in south Mumbai. An alleged militant named Faheem Ahmed Ansari, who was arrested following the massacre, says he was shown Google Earth maps of the planned locations of each attack (Blakely, 2008). Police in Mumbai have concluded, based on claims of the lone gunman captured after the incident, that the suspected terrorist group used Google’s software to learn the layout of the area and an Indian court is calling for its ban (Blakely, 2008). As a result, many have questioned whether Google is responsible in any way for this tragedy. Many others have voiced concerns about their own security since the release of the program in 2005, including the governments of several nations. Google Earth and other virtual globes—free online software that allows users to view a high-resolution model of the planet composed of satellite images—have created new kinds of problems for security officials. However, despite these concerns, the benefits to society derived from these programs overshadow the costs.
High-resolution satellite images are no longer limited to the government. Commercial vendors have made them freely available to any person in the world with an Internet connection. According to a July 2008 report by the CIA’s Open Source Center, the government requested that Google use old imagery of Iraq because of British apprehension about revealing military sites (Eisler, 2008). The same report found many other countries have censored sensitive locations by removing them from Google Earth by or disguising them, and some countries (such as Bahrain) have banned the software entirely (Eisler, 2008). Russian Federal Security Service analyst Lt. Gen. Loenid Sazhin was quoted by Russian news agency Itar-Tass saying, “Terrorists don’t need to reconnoiter their target. Now an American company is working for them” (As cited in Swartz, 2006, pg. 20).
These are valid concerns, but the extent that Google Earth can be used for terrorism is questionable. The software does not include blueprints or inside views of any buildings; the only three-dimensional buildings are graphical representations that serve as nothing more than a visualization tool. It seems terrorists who have the resources to carry out an attack like one in Mumbai would have the capabilities to plan for it without Google Earth (though it is easy to see why many in India called for its ban after so many people were killed). If India were to ban Google Earth, it would also have to ban numerous other virtual globes with similar capabilities. Doing so would prevent them from taking advantage of a great visualization device, as well as new opportunities in research, planning, and education. Every country should have the right to censor anywhere within its boundaries if they feel it is a threat to national security. However, banning the software entirely would force many people to miss out on a tool that has not only proven useful in the past but also has a promising future as new applications can be developed every day.
Blakely, R. (2008, December 9). Google Earth accused of aiding terrorists. Times Online. Retrieved from http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/the_web/article5311241.ece
Direct.com. (2009). Report ties Saudi Arabia to Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Mumbai attack. Retrieved from http://www.israpundit.com/2008/?p=9998
Eisler, P. (2008, November 7). Google Earth Helps Yet Worries Government. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/surveillance/2008-11-06-googleearth_N.htm
Swartz, N. (2006). Google Earth Scares Governments. Information Management Journal 40(2), 20.