A California state legislator has submitted a bill that would limit the amount of detail allowed in images available from applications such as Google Maps and Google Earth, contending that terrorists are using such online tools to plot attacks.
Assemblyman Joel Anderson submitted Bill AB 255 to the California legislature on Feb. 11.
The bill, which is waiting to go to committee, would not allow online mapping tools from companies such as Google Inc. to provide aerial or satellite images of schools, places of worship, government buildings and medical facilities unless they have been blurred.
Anderson told Computerworld that he is looking to limit the amount of detail that Internet users can see.
“We heard from terrorists involved in the Mumbai attacks last year that they used Google Maps to select their targets and get knowledge about their targets. Hamas has said they were using Google Maps to target children’s schools,” said Anderson.
Mumbai attackers use Google Maps
Indeed, officials investigating the Mumbai attacks learned that terrorists who attacked various locations in southern Mumbai in November 2008 used digital maps from Google Earth to learn their way around.
Investigations by the Mumbai police, including the interrogation of one captured terrorist, suggest that the terrorists were highly trained and used technologies such as satellite phones and the Global Positioning System (GPS).
Google Earth has previously come in for criticism in India, including from the country’s former president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.
Kalam warned in a 2005 lecture that the easy availability online of detailed maps of countries from services such as Google Earth could be misused by terrorists.
But a Google spokeswoman – noting that Google Earth’s imagery is available through commercial and public sources – highlighted the altruistic uses of the tool.
Google Earth has also been used by aid agencies for relief operations, which outweighs abusive uses, she said.
Indian security agencies have complained that Google Earth exposed Indian defense and other sensitive installations. Other nations, including China, have made similar complaints regarding military locations.
However, the places attacked by terrorists in Mumbai last November did not come under the category of defense or sensitive installations. The information available to the terrorists on Google Earth about the locations they attacked is also available on printed tourist maps of Mumbai.
The locations included two hotels, a restaurant, a residential complex and a railway station.
The devil’s in the details
Meanwhile, Assemblyman Anderson notes that his bill doesn’t stop people from using Google Earth to find directions.
“What my bill does is limit the level of detail [in Google Earth],” said Anderson. “We don’t need to help bad people map their next target. What is the purpose of showing air ducts and elevator shafts? It does no good.”
Elaine Filadelfo, a spokeswoman for Google, said they are hoping to have a sit down with Anderson and talk about his concerns.
“We are happy to speak with Assemblyman Anderson’s office regarding this legislation and hope to have a productive conversation,” she added.
“Google Maps and Google Earth provide users with a rich, immersive experience, offering useful information and enabling greater understanding of a specific location or area.”
Anderson said he’s not against online mapping and has sat down with Google officials to talk about other issues in the past.
“My door is open,” he said, adding that he hopes Google will help him craft future drafts of the legislation.
“I’m not talking about blacking out locations but changing levels of detail,” he noted. “Just because the knowledge is there, [it] doesn’t mean the information is useful.”
“Feeling Googley inside”
But while Google Maps’ level of detail may be daunting to Anderson, to a Seattle-based technology exec they are what makes the application so compelling.
Last December, Michael Young, chief technology officer at Redfin Inc. said the re-launched version of his firm’s real estate Web site is nearly five times faster partly because it switched to using maps exclusively from Google Inc.
Previously, Redfin used a a mix of Microsoft Virtual Earth and Google Maps.
In his company’s blog Young wrote that Internet Explorer 6 users downloading a map with 500 pushpins – each denoting a potential home – would be able to see the map 385 per cent faster.
Firefox 3 users experience a threefold boost in speed with Redfin’s maps, as do IE 7 users, Young wrote. While praising both Virtual Earth and Google as “solid choices,” Young said “in the end, it was speed, speed, speed that convinced us to switch.
“Users who come to Redfin’s site now should see maps load and render just a little bit quicker, which makes us feel a little Googley inside,” he wrote.
Redfin was using a mix of Microsoft and Google maps, though it had been primarily using Virtual Earth since 2006, Young wrote. At the time, Google Maps was “faster out of the box but slower once we started drawing on it, especially on IE 6.”
The online mapping space is a highly competitive one. As of last October, Google remained second to MapQuest.com overall among U.S. end users, followed by Yahoo Maps as third and Microsoft’s Live Maps/Virtual Earth a distant fourth, according to Hitwise.com data.
However, according to investment bank Cowen and Company LLC, as cited by Search Engine Land, Google and Microsoft are rolling out more features than Yahoo and MapQuest, and are the only choices for programmers deciding upon which online map to base their Web 2.0 sites.
Google gained momentum last October with the launch of the GeoEye-1 satellite, which will provide superior-resolution satellite photos of the Earth to U.S. defense agencies and in the commercial space, exclusively to Google.
Microsoft’s Virtual Earth, however, appears to have a larger archive of overhead photos taken by airplane, which are far superior in clarity and size than satellite photos.
If passed, this bill would only affect California, but Anderson said he’s confident that other states, as well as federal lawmakers, will introduce similar bills.