Is Google Earth's satellite imagery a security risk?

Google Earth might display details that help find security holes

Satellite images of Mother Earth have come to the people, and several governments are not happy about it. The launch of Google Earth in June made it possible for anyone with Internet access to view just about any part of the surface of the earth, including strategic military locations. The satellites can focus in on government buildings, energy facilities, utilities, even homes.

The criticism started in August when Frans Weekers and Aleid Wolfson, members of the Dutch Parliament, questioned whether free imagery of the world might be a handy tool for terrorists, providing aerial photographs of potential targets. They called on the Dutch government to take appropriate action against Google.

More recently, Thailand demanded action from Washington. Maj. Gen. Weerasak Manee-in, a Thai Armed Forces spokesman, said his nation wanted restrictions on the detailed images, especially state buildings. He suggested that Google be allowed to show only images of tourist attractions. South Korea, which is technically still at war with its neighbor to the north, is also concerned about images of government buildings, military bases and the defense security command.

Satellite imagery programs also have private security firms concerned. George Miserendino, President and owner of Triton Security Solutions and a former security executive with the U.S. Department of Energy, agrees that Google Earth and similar products present a potential risk. "It provides a detailed layout of the physical features of plants, generators and substations, access roads and surrounding areas that could be used for cover, concealment, surveillance, even thievery," he said. Miserendino thinks that electric and utility associations should request that images of their facilities be obscured or eliminated.

Some governmental agencies see no danger. Australia's Nuclear Science and Technology Organization, which operates the only nuclear reactor down under, said Google posed no risk because the images were old and did not expose any critical infrastructure. Google officials stated they try to update their imagery at least once every 18 months.

There are other security officials who say the information can actually be helpful. Mark Goodman, Onslow County Director of Emergency Services and Homeland Security in North Carolina, uses the program to help with emergency planning. Goodman said the images are not clear enough to present a security risk.

Does Google Earth make the world safer? Or more dangerous? What do you think?

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

The 10 most powerful cybersecurity companies