Google Earth Privacy and Security Roundup
When the satellite-photo version of Google Maps came out earlier this year, there was some apprehension about the impact of these high-resolution photos on individual privacy. For example, some nervousness about being able to see the car in your driveway. I’m sensitive to privacy concerns, but for the most part I think these worries are unwarranted: most individual activities wouldn’t show up on even the highest resolution photos, and the age of the photos, as we’ve seen, can be considerable in some cases.
There is a difference, though, between individual concerns about privacy and state concerns over secrecy. When individuals fret about satellite photos, I try to understand; when governments get nervous about those photos, I get nervous. It reminds me of authoritarian regimes who banned topo maps of less than 1:25,000 scale to prevent people from knowing about secret installations — both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union did this.
For the past couple of months, Ogle Earth (and some other blogs, but Stefan’s coverage has been the most comprehensive) has been tracking various governments’ concerns over the fact that certain sensitive installations were visible via Google Earth. Here’s a list:
- Australia: The operators of Australia’s nuclear reactor wanted Google to censor the image of the reactor, but the federal government concluded that the imagery posed no risk; the photos were already publicly available through other sources. (Ogle Earth)
- The Netherlands: Two Dutch legislators worried that terrorists could use Google Earth to target government facilities or reactors; see the AP story at Forbes and USA Today. (Ogle Earth)
- South Korea: The South Korean government said it was concerned that military installations and the presidential palace were available on Google Earth; their availability on Google Earth apparently violates domestic security laws. (GeoCarta, Ogle Earth)
- Thailand: Not to be left out, Thailand’s military worries about terrorists using Google Earth to attack government buildings. (Ogle Earth)
- United Kingdom: The British nuclear security watchdog said it would try to block detailed photos of nuclear power plants. (Ogle Earth)
- United States: A Queens assemblyman also voiced concerns that Google Earth could be used by terrorists (All Points Blog).
On a related note, Ogle Earth had a look at the new USGS guidelines on disseminating aerial photography: apparently access was sometimes restricted without actually assessing the security risk — they were restricting things by default, in other words, which is exactly how not to do things in a democracy. One key point that Stefan noted was that secrecy was not justified if the data was available from other sources.
A 2004 Rand study of publicly accessible geospatial information concluded that terrorists would need more detailed data than is available via satellite images. The report also said they are more likely to turn to “direct observations” or “individuals familiar with the operations of a particular facility” to conduct attacks.
In other words, everybody is overreacting. We’re seeing two things: one, the political need to be seen to be doing something about terrorism, no matter how ineffectual, so long as it’s visible; and two, the bureaucratic impulse to keep things secret as a solution to a problem. For them, it’s easier to suppress information than to improve security.