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:

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.

As it stands, Google doesn’t alter the images it receives from government or other sources, according to this article (via Very Spatial). That article also notes the following:

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.

See previous entries: Maps as Security Threat; Maps as State Secrets.

Update, 9/13 at 1:50 PM: El Reg’s cheeky take on this subject; via All Points Blog.