Nations Respond To Google Earth Threat - InformationWeek

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8/26/2008
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Nations Respond To Google Earth Threat

From banning Google Earth to simply ignoring the mapping service, countries are working to deal with potential security violations arising from the images Google makes available online.

To deal with the "Google threat," as Google's geospatial mapping application Google Earth is characterized in the July 30, 2008 report from the Director of National Intelligence's Open Source Center, foreign governments have offered five main responses: negotiating with Google, banning Google products, developing similar products, taking evasive measures, and nonchalance.

The report, obtained by the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News site, recounts how nations have dealt with perceived privacy violations arising from the images Google makes available through its software.

Where individuals like the Borings in Pennsylvania have had to sue to protect themselves from Google's Street View cameras, sovereign countries have a wider set of options to protect national privacy.

Asking Google to have imagery removed or blurred has gotten easier since terrorists were confirmed to be using the software to plan attacks in 2006 and 2007, the report says. Following news reports in January 2007 that terrorists attacking British bases in Basra, Iraq were using Google Earth as a planning tool, Google "seemingly became more open to dealing directly with foreign governments to assuage their security concerns," the report says.

But some governments prefer banning to negotiating. Bahrain blocked access to Google Earth servers for three days in 2006. Earlier this year, China began cracking down on unapproved mapping sites. And the United States has banned Google Earth in Sudan in accordance with export restrictions and sanctions.

The report cites an article from a Chinese military journal in 2006 to convey China's perception of Google's eyes in the sky. The military journal article acknowledges the futility of trying to stifle Google Earth as an act that would be "not only out of keeping with the times but is also unnecessary and baseless."

But such sentiment shouldn't be taken as acceptance of Google's scrutiny. "On the other hand, we can adopt various methods and measures and do all we can to get around the problems brought about by Google Earth and minimize the impact it has on national security," the article is quoted as saying.

To minimize the impact of Google Earth, China, India, and Norway have explored ways to camouflage sensitive areas and structures from satellite cameras, the report says.

China, India, and Thailand have each said they're developing their own versions of Google Earth, the report says.

It's worth noting that Google Earth isn't merely a threat to secretive regimes. According to a research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Czech and German researchers recently used Google Earth images to reveal that cattle and deer tend to align their bodies with our planet's magnetic poles when grazing.

It's not immediately clear whether this heretofore unrealized bovine unity has national security implications.

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