Intelligence: Google Earth Changed The Game


August 31, 2008: It's been three years since Google Earth gave everyone access to commercial satellite photography. At first, this seemed like a disaster for the military. With millions of people enthusiastically scouring satellite photos formerly only available to businesses (and often unseen, or used by only a few people), many military secrets were no longer secure. Google found itself besieged by angry generals, admirals, diplomats and government bureaucrats demanding that images of military installations be removed. Some nations simply cut off access to Google Earth, or at least tried to. It's very difficult to completely cut off access to a single site on the web.

After about a year, things settled down, when something unexpected happened. First, it turned out that crowd sourcing had struck again. Crowd sourcing is the unique web phenomenon whereby large numbers of people applying themselves to a task (like examining thousands of Google Earth satellite photos), reveals things that were previously unnoticed (even by the professional spy agencies, although they won't admit it). This proved to be beneficial for the intelligence agencies around the world, especially those in democracies. Not because the new revelations were so important, but because a lot of their stuff, that was formerly closely held (because to reveal it would show the other nations what was known, or, more often, just because it was a secret), was now out in the open, for everyone to see. Thus, for example, it was now obvious to all the extent of the Chinese military buildup (new bases, new ships, new aircraft and ballistic missiles). It was also obvious how much Russian military power had declined since 1991.

While Google will respond to an official request to black out (or lower the resolution on) sensitive military areas, they have to get an official request, and there has to be something there. In addition, many nations are putting more effort into hiding military activities from satellite photography. And many things that governments can't be ordered black out, like the visual record of Sudan's destruction of hundreds of villages in Sudan, remain visible to all. In that respect, journalists find Google Earth a powerful new tool. This will become even more the case in the future, as new commercial photo satellites enter service, and provide even more detailed images. The eye in the sky never sleeps, and doesn't lie. It's not going away, either. That's just something everyone has to get used to, for better or worse.




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