The U.S. Department of Defense put Google on the defensive last week when it issued a communique to make it clear that the roving photographic vehicles Google uses to acquire Google Maps Street View images aren't allowed on U.S. military bases.
In pursuing its mission "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," Google inadvertently ran afoul of the military's mission to maintain security for its personnel and sites.
The DOD took action when Street View images of Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, appeared on Google Maps. Google introduced Google Maps Street View images for San Antonio in February.
Google removed the pictures at the request of the military. Fort Sam Houston is not open to the public.
Google spokesperson Larry Yu said it was against Google's policy to seek access to military installations or otherwise private facilities. "Our policy is to stay on public roads," he said. "A driver broke that policy."
Lt. Commander Gary Ross, a public affairs officer for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the U.S. Northern Command, said that the military had become aware that Google was requesting access to Fort Sam Houston and that the Pentagon issued a memorandum on Feb. 28 to clarify that Google's image capture efforts should not be allowed on military sites.
"It has operational risks for force protection and the safety of personnel who work on the base," Ross said.
Ross said that the directive doesn't apply only to Google as there are other companies that also acquire images for similar uses.
While security through obscurity is generally regarded as an inadequate strategy on the Internet, it remains a cornerstone of site security policies for governments around the globe.
London's Metropolitan Police recently launched a counter-terrorism campaign that warns citizens to be on the lookout for "odd" photographers. Posters promoting the campaign present the camera as if it were a weapon. The climate in the U.K. is such that the photographers there last year organized a photographer's rights petition out of fear that public photography might become a licensed activity.
In 2004, New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority considered a ban on photography in subway stations. It dropped the idea the following year.
In 2006, Saudi Arabia lifted a ban on photography in public places to attract more tourists; some restrictions remain, however.
In December 2005, the New York Times reported that the governments of India, Russia, and South Korea, among others, were worried that Google Earth's satellite imagery -- which comes from third-party providers -- might reveal too much about their military bases.
Google isn't unaware of the privacy issues surrounding its collection of images. "We've been pretty clear with people that if they're concerned with the imagery, we try to make it easier and easier to submit requests to get the imagery taken down," said Yu. "That's helped mitigate issues of privacy."
And if you represent a large army, you don't even have to bother with the Report Inappropriate Image link. Someone at Google will take your call.