Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Google Earth Threat

Some of us can remember back to a time when our parents were thoroughly spooked by satellite photos showing Soviet missiles being delivered to Cuba. The scary, grainy black and whites lent even more drama in 1962 to what has become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The shots from high out in space had to be authentic--only the government was up there after all.

Well, not so much today. In fact, governments are all shook up about the ease with which commercial entities are picturing every corner of Earth for whomever is willing to pay. Of greatest concern: Google Earth. The second photo up top, of the U.S. Air Force's top-secret testing site, Area 51 in Nevada, offers a case in point. It came via Google. "The Google Controversy--Two Years Later," a July 30 report from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence's Open Source Center, details the depth of concern about Google and its ilk and the steps nations are taking in response. Kudos to the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News blog for publishing the paper and linking to many of its references!

After a Google spokesperson said in 2006 that the Earth-picturing site "presents no appreciable threat to security" because, hey, high-res satellite and aerial imagery is all over the place nowdays if you can pay, OSC stepped up its monitoring. Two years ago this month the center got hold of actual footage showing Google Earth being used by Iraqi insurgents to plan attacks on U.S. forces. In September 2006, the center reports, Al Qaeda-linked militants blew up four car bombs while attacking an oil facility in Yemen after planning the attack using Google Earth.

By 2007, The Chinese government had begun combing online mapping sites for images of its secrets and raising heck with Google, which a Chinese spokesperson praised as "very responsive." No surprise there given Google's overall obsequiousness toward China. But other spots get blurred, too. For example, Bahrain blocked access to Google Earth in 2006 for a few days because the rich didn't want their lavish holdings exposed.

According to "Blurred Out: 51 Things You Aren't Allowed to See on Google Maps," a piece in the July 15 issue of IT Security, other places that have won obscurity include Playland Amusement Park in Rye, New York, the White House, the U.S. Vice President's residence, a host of national security sites worldwide and the home of the Borings in Franklin Park, Pa., after they claimed Google Maps' Street View feature "violated their privacy, devalued their property and caused them mental suffering by posting images of a private road in front of their house."

Meanwhile OSC says, Thailand, India and China are creating their own versions of Google Earth. And countries, including India, China and Norway, are taking evasive action such as camouflaging facilities, hiding them in mountains and the like.

For a vastly more detailed and entertaining and authoritative job of delving into this subject that I can do here, see the terrific story by science writer extraordinaire Sharon Weinberger In Discover July 21: "Can You Spot the Chinese Nuclear Sub?" It's such a good story, in fact, that the OSC report opens by quoting extensively from it.

And that's a story in itself: There is such a center capitalizing on open source material and it's finding the really good stuff out there by the best journalists. Good for the DNI!

What caught my interest in all this is my growing feeling that the next version of the Internet might just be something that looks a lot like Google Earth. In a fascinating conversation August 1 with Don Brutzman, of the Modeling, Virtual Environments and Simulation Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., I learned of his project to essentially recreate Google Earth in order to use it as a training and simulation ground for the U.S. military. He and his confreres in the Web 3D Consortium want nothing less than to make the Web itself the next virtual world. The kicker is, they don't want anyone. including Google to own it. Meanwhile, that appears to be exactly what Google wants to do.

It's a fascinating tug of war, mostly being played out behind the scenes by folks far too deep in the worlds of XML and KML and whatnot for most of us to understand. And yet, it could very well be the struggle that determines the course of, well, the Earth, or at least the one we get to inhabit online.

I found it hard to truly wrap my mind around the notion of Web 3D and Web 3D Earth, so here's a video that at least gets at some of it for those as mentally challenged as I:

Sources: Cuba photo-John F. Kennedy Library; NARA; Area 51 photo-Discover magazine online, July 21, 2008

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