Security Issues: Not Enough to Ban Google Earth

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.

An Indian court believes terrorists used Google Earth to plan attacks in Mumbai (Direct.com, 2009).

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.

References:

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.

7 comments to Security Issues: Not Enough to Ban Google Earth

  • Kiron Lebeck

    I entirely agree with your position that the benefits of Google Earth overshadow the costs. While it may make the job of terrorists slightly easier in terms of gaining easy access to aerial views of various locations, Google Earth does not provide very much detail at all. Regarding India’s potential ban, I think it should be noted that India intends to launch its own version of Google Earth. Perhaps they are using the Mumbai bombings as leverage for financial reasons? It seems hypocritical to denounce one virtual globe while seeking to profit from one’s own. I also agree that a country should have every right to censor locations within its boundaries. Google Earth serves many useful purposes that do not involve viewing highly classified or high profile locations, so it would do little harm to the program if they provided more of this sort of censorship upon request.

  • Dustin Alin

    I also agree with your position and think that you had a specific and well-stated claim. While Google Earth shows great detail of the outside of buildings and places, it provides very little information that would aid terrorists. As Blakely’s articles states, they needed a lot more technology and resources to accomplish their plan.
    I think your 2nd paragraph had many great examples but very little analysis. Maybe you could explain why governments and other people would think these examples pose security threats. Your last paragraph explained very well what Google Earth is missing that terrorists would need. I think you did a great job of explaining why Google Earth does not pose a security threat.

  • Emily Mass

    Like Kiron, I agree with your point that the good that comes out of Google Earth outweighs the bad. It is clear that you are addressing the extent to which terrorist groups are actually using Google Earth. You could further your argument by discussing how accountable Google Earth is if and when terrorist groups do use Google maps. In my position paper, I said that Google Earth shouldn’t and truly couldn’t be blamed for any terrorist attack connected to Google maps because like you mentioned in your essay “terrorists who have the resources to carry out an attack … would have the capabilities to plan for it without Google Earth.”
    A large portion of your essay discusses the uselessness of banning Google Earth/virtual globes because of security reasons. These points are very interesting and strong, so you might consider adding a line in your thesis about banning virtual globes.
    You used a particular counter argument technique that I like the best. You started off clearly explaining the reasons why government’s feel a security threat because of Google Earth in your introduction. Then, your last line, switches over to why Google Earth doesn’t pose a security threat.

  • Neby Teklu

    I really liked how you ended it with saying that you cannot ban the entire software, and still be technologically ahead globally. Also what I seem to forget sometimes is integrating the definition of a virtual globe into my introduction, which you did well. I think you did a good job being consistent through out your paper as well and making your position clear. I kind of wish you ended the 2nd paragraph with a little analysis about that quote, maybe why that person was right or wrong? Nice job though, starting it with an anecdote adds to the persuasion affect as well.

  • Ryan Wong

    It would be difficult to hold Google responsible for acts of terrorism that are linked to individuals’ uses of Google Earth, just as it would be difficult to hold Verizon accountable if terrorists used its cellular network. Like you say, Google provides a resource that is far more widespread in its use as a learning and research tool than as an instrument of terrorism. Your last paragraph does well to address the counterargument focus of this week’s SR. You might want to be careful about suggesting that a country has the absolute right to censor within its borders. That leaves room for a government to brand any sort of activity of which it disapproves as a potential threat to national security. It might be interesting to explore to what extent a government can make that claim.

  • Miray Seward

    I agree with you that the Google Earth has many befits that outweigh the possible negatives. Terrorists are not using information that couldn’t have been found otherwise. As you said, “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.” While you did have a lot of evidence to back up your claim, I agree that you could have done a little more analysis of the outside sources. Overall you did a great job incorporating a counter argument into your paper and showing that it was not the best side of the argument.

  • Carol Swartz

    Two dimensional maps convey a vast array of information; virtual globes make that information more vivid. Google Earth activates our imagination along the lines of our personal interests without regard to the merits of those interests. Like many other Internet applications, Google Earth amplifies our imagination and facilitates our acting on our interests.

    The incident in Mumbai brings the costs of ready access to detailed geographic information into stark relief. The benefits from peaceful use of Google Earth are harder to identify and quantify, but they are real nonetheless.

    Google Earth and other virtual globes are not unique resources. Their availability makes them useful for planning a variety of activities, including terrorism. Free access to satellite photography and ground-level photos substantially reduces the cost of obtaining information and thus make terror attacks easier and less costly to plan and carry out.

    Nations have the right to safeguard their populations and property. The threat, however, is not information but aggrieved individuals and groups who find value in the information. Continued investment in intelligence gathering, data mining, and other techniques for identifying and countering the risks of terrorism can be expected to strengthen counter-terrorism programs without resorting to extreme measures of limiting access to virtual globes.

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