Is Google Earth a Terrorist Tool?

Is Google Earth too good? Is Google Earth a tool for terrorists? An Indian court believes Google Earth was used in the Mumbai attacks to help plan and scout locations for terror.

A petition entered at the Bombay High Court alleges that the Google Earth service, “aids terrorists in plotting attacks.” Advocate Amit Karkhanis has urged the court to direct Google to blur images of sensitive areas in the country until the case is decided.

There are indications that the gunmen who stormed Mumbai on November 26, and the people trained them, were technically literate. The group appears to have used complex GPS systems to navigate their way to Mumbai by sea. They communicated by satellite phone, used mobile phones with several different SIM cards, and may have monitored events as the siege unfolded via handheld Blackberry web browsers.

Police in Mumbai have said the terrorists familiarised themselves with the streets of Mumbai’s financial capital using satellite images, according to the sole gunman to be captured alive. The commandos who stormed the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai said the militants had made a beeline for the building’s CCTV control room.

When technology is employed to hurt than help — what obligation are we under in the community of the world to block access to tools that can be turned against us for the killing?

19 comments

  • Sir Francis Bacon first coined the phrase “Knowledge is Power”.
    Google Earth is a widely available program – it is entirely possible the terrorists used it to plan and plot their route.
    Maybe the world should ask Google Earth not to zoom in quite so close …… the blurring already occurs on some places of the map – I think that might tend to draw more attention than it might otherwise as it signals out those places as sensitive and as ideal targets!
    Has there been a petition launched against Google Earth yet – have people stopped using it – or pledged to stop using it.
    I know there have been a series of minor complaints against Google Earth on privacy grounds – I don’t know how far these were taken and if they were successful or not.

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  • I think people love Google Earth. When Steve Fossett went missing, Google snapped new satellite shots of the area he was thought to be missing and asked the world community to login and take a certain parcel and look for evidence of a crash or a call for help.
    The White House, the VP’s House, Area 51 and other “sensitive” places are blurred — but the places most vulnerable to a terrorist attack — where people gather in the open — like stadiums and theme parks and beaches won’t be blocked and that means they become detailed maps for planning and carrying out an attack.
    Here’s an example of such an execution of “Disney World in 3D” that gives you a walk-through of entire grounds.
    http://www.gearthblog.com/blog/archives/2008/06/disney_world_in_3d_in_google_earth.html
    Is that dangerous to public safety? Or is it just handy to have on hand?
    I’m not hearing any outcry yet to stop Google Earth. It will be interesting to watch and see what happens.

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  • If you join Ordinance Survey in the UK – you can get detailed maps for “planning applications” which outline each house, electricity, gas and water supply.
    I am not sure about the Disney thing – it is almost an invitation to some I feel.

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  • That’s wild, Nicola! Have you joined the survey to get the details of your place?
    I agree the Disney thing must’ve sounded neat in meetings, but in execution, it’s an invitation to terrorize the park.

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  • I may well done given my current circumstances – it might be very useful.
    If they do decide to limit Google Earths operations they will have to apply it to Microsoft’s equivalent and to Ordinance Survey and other mapping services as well.

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    Hi David,
    With Google Eart, I can even see the overhead tank of our home, and I love it!
    If someone plans to put a bomb there with the help of it – well, I can’t blame Google Earth for that I guess…

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  • Let us know if you bite on getting the detailed mapping of your place, Nicola. It sounds like a wonderful idea.
    I agree there needs to be some sort of limit set on the public dissemination of satellite photography. I don’t like Google Street View much. I think it’s super-creepy to be watched and logged like that.

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  • Wow, Katha! Give us the Google Earth URL to show us the tank over your home. You’re okay with that, right? It isn’t an invasion of privacy for us all to peek at you that way?
    While a terrorist cell might not want to bomb your house, they might find seeing the street-level details or NYC helpful. They can do all their pre-planning from afar without being Panopticonically watched.

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    Hi David,
    These are the “occupational hazards” of advancement of technology. I understand the terrorists won’t want to bomb my house but they want to blow the Tajmahal up…
    The million dollar question is – can we prevent it? I don’t know – I am not that tech-savvy.
    But, every scientific innovation comes with a price – did The Boing stopped producing aircraft after 9/11?

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    Oh, I forgot to mention – I don’t have a problem people seeing my home through the Google Earth – I will post the url once the speed of the connection is good…

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  • We might not be able to stop terrorism, Katha, but should we be helping them by providing them detailed satellite and 3D maps of places they might like to bomb?

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  • Great, Katha! Give us a tour of your India via Google Earth. Show us where you went to school, your favorite place to eat, where you have built stores…

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  • UPDATE:
    Japan asked Google to stop their Panopticonism:

    TOKYO (Reuters) – A group of Japanese lawyers and professors asked on Friday that Google Inc stop providing detailed street-level images of Japanese cities on the Internet, saying they violated privacy rights.
    Google’s Street View offers ground-level, 360-degree views of streets in 12 Japanese cities and is also offered for some 50 cities in the United States and certain areas in Europe.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/internetNews/idUSTRE4BI1GC20081219

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  • Oh, my, Nicola! That is some really powerful surveillance technology coming your way. There have been a lot of “privacy” violations with the Panopticonic Google Cars pulling into private driveways to model the landscape. Beware of cars with 360 degree cameras!

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  • I am going to post something positive about this – just to counteract our negativity ……..
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7820984.stm
    Which tells the story of a missing child found by mobile phone tracing and google street view.

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  • Now that’s a great story, Nicola. I appreciate your effort to balance the technology between the rabid and the good.

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  • Pingback: As My Mother Unsuccessfully Hides from Google Street View | Dramatic Medicine

  • Pingback: Electronic Belongings: Just What Are You Leaving Behind? « Boles Blogs

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