Adding to the chorus of critics who say detailed images on Google Earth can aid and abet terrorists and snoops, a New York state lawmaker is calling on the company to blur potential terrorist targets.
The plea from Assemblyman Mike Gianaris follows the alleged discovery earlier this month of a plot by a Muslim terrorist cell to blow up fuel tanks and a jet fuel pipeline at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Some of the suspects planning the attack had used Google-produced images clearly depicting airport infrastructure after surveillance video they secured proved inadequate, according to an indictment in the case.
"It's only a matter of time before someone uses the information Google Earth provides to do this country harm," Gianaris was quoted as saying in an article in the New York Post. He objects to the satellite images carried on Google Earth and Google Maps that gives detailed views of skyscrapers, airports and other potential terror targets.
Gianaris is only the latest individual to criticize Google for making available images that have the potential to violate national security, privacy or other vital interests. In addition to officials in the US, Australia, India and South Korea complaining about sensitive facilities being clearly visible in online mapping services, other critics warn the rich detail could trample civil liberties.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California recently took issue with Google's new Street View feature, which the group said raises "privacy concerns for individuals who are unwittingly captured by Google’s candid cameras." The service, which is detailed enough to show license plate numbers and the faces of people entering and exiting doctor's offices, could be the end of public anonymity as we know it, the ACLU and others worry.
Google says it takes concerns about security and privacy seriously and is always willing to discuss them with public agencies and officials. But it goes on to note that the same satellite and mapping data it puts on our desktops for free has long been available elsewhere, mainly through commercial services and government agencies.
"Accordingly, we expect security concerns to be addressed primarily by the companies and governmental agencies that gather and distribute the images," a Google spokeswoman says.
Google also allows users to alert the company of inappropriate images so they can be taken down.
Plenty of nuclear power plants, military bases and other sensitive sites are blurred on Google Maps. The spokeswoman says such censoring is made by the third parties providing the images prior to it being turned over to Google. The only modifications Google makes, she said, is the occasional color correction or other cosmetic enhancement.
Not everyone outside of Google is a critic of the company's imaging practices. Among them is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is quoted in the New York Sun as saying: "Given the number of satellites that can read your license plate from the sky, I think at this point [Google is] not necessarily where a terrorist would go."
And while we're playing Devil's Advocate, it's important to remind readers that plenty of other sites are providing the same granular level of map and satellite imagery that Google does. According to a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, a competing online map offered by Microsoft recently offered a bird's-eye view of a nuclear power plant in Perry, Ohio even though the same facility was blurred out on Google. ®