Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Google Earth Images Irk Nations

NEW YORK -- When Google introduced Google Earth, free software that marries satellite and aerial images with mapping capabilities, the company emphasized its usefulness as a teaching and navigation tool, while advertising the pure entertainment value of high-resolution flyover images of the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and the pyramids.

But since its debut last summer, Google Earth has received attention of an unexpected sort. Officials of several nations have expressed alarm over its detailed display of government buildings, military installations and other sensitive sites within their borders. India, whose laws sharply restrict satellite and aerial photography, has been particularly outspoken.

"It could severely compromise a country's security," V.S. Ramamurthy, secretary in India's Department of Science and Technology, said of Google Earth. And India's surveyor general, Major General Gopal Rao, said, "They ought to have asked us."

Similar sentiments have surfaced in news reports from other countries. South Korean officials have said they fear that Google Earth lays bare details of sensitive military installations. Thai security officials said they intended to ask Google to block images of government buildings. And Lieutenant General Leonid Sazhin, an analyst for the Federal Security Service, was quoted by Itar-Tass as saying: "Terrorists don't need to reconnoiter their target. Now an American company is working for them."

But there is little they can do, it seems, but protest. Google Earth is the most conspicuous recent instance of increased openness in a digitally networked world, where information that was once carefully guarded is now widely available on personal computers. Many security experts agree that such increased transparency -- and the discomfort that it produces -- is an inevitable byproduct of the Internet's power and reach.

American experts in and outside government generally agree that the focus on Google Earth as a security threat appears misplaced, as the same images that Google acquires from a variety of sources are available directly from the imaging companies, as well as from other sources. Google Earth licenses most of the satellite images, for instance, from DigitalGlobe, an imaging company in Colorado.

"Google Earth is not acquiring new imagery," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, which has an online repository of satellite imagery. "They are simply repurposing imagery that somebody else had already acquired. So if there was any harm that was going to be done by the imagery, it would already be done."

Google Earth was developed as a $79-a-year product by a small company called Keyhole that Google bought last year; it was reintroduced as a free downloadable desktop program in June. It consists of software that can be downloaded onto a personal computer and used to "fly over" city streets, landmarks, buildings, mountains, redwood forests and Gulf Stream waters. Type in any street address in the United States, Canada or Britain, or the longitude and latitude for any place -- or even terms like "pyramids" or "Taj Mahal" -- and the location quickly zooms into focus from outer space. It was in the 1990s that the federal government started allowing commercial satellite companies to make and sell high-resolution images, to allow U.S. companies to compete in a growing market.

But a number of security restrictions apply to those companies. For instance, U.S. law requires that images of Israel shot by American-licensed commercial satellites be made available only at a relatively low resolution. Also, the companies' operating licenses allow the U.S. government to put any area off limits in the interests of national security. A 24-hour delay is mandated for images of especially high resolution.

Andrew McLaughlin, a senior policy counsel at Google, said the company had entered discussions with several countries over the last few months, including Thailand, South Korea and, most recently, India. India may be particularly sensitive to security issues because of its long-running border disputes with Pakistan, its rival nuclear power, and recurring episodes of terrorism. Since 1967, it has forbidden aerial photographs of bridges, ports, refineries and military establishments, and outside companies and agencies are required to have those images evaluated by the government.

Ramamurthy, the Indian science official, acknowledged that "there is very little we can do to a company based overseas and offering its service over the Internet." Meetings with Indian officials or those from other nations have yet to result in a request that Google remove or downgrade any information, McLaughlin said.

The same cannot be said for Pike, whose web site has images of nuclear test sites and military bases in much sharper focus than can be found on Google Earth.

Last year, Pike said, he was asked by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, an arm of the Defense Department, to remove from his site some of the maps of cities in Iraq that the Coalition Provisional Authority had created for planning cell phone service.

Pike said he had complied, but added that the incident was a classic example of the futility of trying to control information. "To think that the same information couldn't be found elsewhere was not a very safe assumption," he said.

Dave Burpee, a spokesman for the agency, said that the incident was relatively isolated, and that Pike had been asked to remove the maps because they were marked "limited distribution." A service like Google Earth, on the other hand, contains nothing classified or restricted.