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May 28, 2012: For the last six years India, South Korea, the United States, and a number of other countries have been pressuring Google to "do something" about its "Google Earth" service. The security organizations in these countries are alarmed at the ease with which Google Earth enables any user to quickly get a satellite photo of just about any area on the planet. This capability is nothing new, as it's been available from commercial photo satellite firms for over a decade. But what has changed with the Google offering is that the company gathers together the largest collection of satellite photos ever and makes them very easy to get at, by anyone with Internet access. This is what worries counter-terrorism officials. Islamic terrorists are long on fanaticism but short on practical skills. Anything that makes it easier for an Islamic terrorist to plan attacks, the more likely that attacks will be put together and carried out.

In Iraq and Afghanistan the United States found the enemy using Google Earth to get a better idea of what potential targets (military or civilian) looked like from above. At the same time troops were often using Google Earth to plan their own operations. South Korea fears that poverty stricken, but heavily armed, North Korea could use Google Earth to more effectively plan military operations against them. Then again, few North Koreans have access to the Internet and the Google Earth views of the mansions and special facilities for the North Korean elite have been very embarrassing for the northern leadership. At the same time North Koreans have been getting hold of cell phones (illegal in most of North Korea) and using cell towers along the Chinese border to get information into, and out of, North Korea.

India is still vexed that the Pakistani Islamic terrorists who attacked Mumbai (and killed or wounded hundreds of people) in 2009, used Google Earth to plan the attack and cell phones to keep in touch with each other and their boss back in Pakistan.

Many countries have managed to persuade the satellite photo providers to lower the resolution of images showing sensitive areas. But this is a tedious process and does not include the many civilian targets terrorists prefer.  Many security officials would like Google Earth and its growing number of competitors to just go away. But it won't, it's too popular among the many users who are not terrorists, spies, or common criminals. Same deal with cell phones and email.

All this is another example of how change, seemingly for the better, often has a downside. Google Earth is very useful to a lot of people. By making all this satellite photography easily available to anyone, you also make it available to those who are up to no good. The same can be said for the telegraph (invented 170 years ago), the telephone (140 years ago), radio (110 years ago), and personal computers (40 years ago). You've got to take the good with the bad. Google Earth, and similar services, are not going away just because they make security, intelligence, and counter-terrorism officials nervous.

 

 


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