Cyberterrorism and Google Earth

Cyberterrorism is often considered as a subset of Cybercrime and it is the “convergence of terrorism and cyberspace” as cited in Denning’s Testimony before the Special Oversight Panel on Terrorism (Denning, 2000). Though there is no universally agreed definition for the term, in short it is the activity of using Internet to plan and/or execute terrorist attacks. It can either mean attacks on computers or network in order to steal crucial information or the use of Internet technologies to plot attacks. This post talks about the later aspect of Cyberterrorism.

Terrorists use a wide range of technologies to plot an attack like specialized softwares (e.g. for hacking), but also freely available tools used by any internet user –such as Google Earth.

Google Earth offers very clear and accurate satellite images of almost every part of the planet which is creating more and more concerns among the governments. Their stand is that Google Earth captures very sensitive sites of their countries such as army camps, government buildings and so on. They worry, doubt and sometime even confirm that terrorists use these images to study the sites in detail and plan their attacks accordingly.

In fact, the only surviving terrorist from the 2008 Mumbai attack has confessed that they used Google Earth to study their target sites and synchronised their acts accordingly.

Google’s take on this is that Google Earth’s noble uses outweigh the misuses of the tool. It says that the tool is used for many life-saving situations during natural disasters e.g. earthquakes, forest fires and so on.  This can be related to the misuse of Craigslist mentioned by Anand during lecture.

The current solution is that many governments blur out images showing sensitive areas and other countries just ban the tool (such as in Iran and Sudan).

But to what extent can the governments, especially for large countries, hide the numerous sensitive places from Google Earth images? And for those countries that ban the tool: aren’t they missing the good uses of the tool as well? What can/should Google do to overcome this issues and complaints? And finally to what extent can Google or Craigslist be responsible for the misuses, considered as cybercrimes, which have occurred?

6 thoughts on “Cyberterrorism and Google Earth

  1. your article catches my eyes. google is just a company altough it is powerful and influential, but it cannot go beyond a country. so google should not provide high-resolution picture about the sensitive areas in any countries. in your article you mentioned ” It says that the tool is used for many life-saving situations during natural disasters e.g. earthquakes, forest fires and so on.” my question is :are the sensitive areas important in the natural disasters? and i think no governments regard forest as sensitive areas and google do not have to the forests. may i know the area that affect people’s live if google make it blur?

  2. This brings up another question for me, adityababel. Obviously Google provided a valuable service with Google Earth. But as it was being designed, do you think they recognized this issue and yet still went ahead with it? Was this the right thing to do? How should software/system developers do this? Should we stop creating a system when, during the design, we recognize a social issue, as serious as this, might arise?

  3. Hi Anand,

    I think your question begs a deeper question that has troubled scientists for hundreds of years. Namely is science justified if it can be used for unethical purposes.

    Things like genetic engineering and stem cell research come to mind, but in these cases the morality of these issues is often disputed among people. I for one believe that such research is good and can only lead to better health care, among other things, in the future. Some others may not feel the same way.

    A more relevant comparison, however, would be that with nuclear technology. Some of the greatest minds in the world came up with this powerful technology and Albert Einstein, one of the main researchers, repeatedly condemned the use of nuclear technology in times of war. But the US government went ahead and used it anyway. And if the Germans came up with the technology first then who knows what could have happened. Einstein has stated that the only justification to such creating such technology for war purposes is so that the Germans wouldn’t have it first.

    I personally have the purist belief that science should be pursued for science’s sake. This is, however, not possible in the real world.

    I am quite certain that Google’s team was able to recognize this issue with Google Earth, but still went ahead with it. And I think that Google was right to do so. The reason is that the “potential positive benefits of Google Earth far outweigh the negative aspects”. However, this reasoning this way can often be ambiguous – consider nuclear weapons for example. I think this is the fundamental conflict between science and society that has been around since our early days, and will continue to be around in the years to come. Alas there is no simple answer to this.

    So, in conclusion, I feel that Google was justified to go ahead with Google Earth since it clearly seems as if the potential positive benefits of the technology far outweigh the negative aspects. In the future, a fair reasoning of this question should be carried out by any researcher before he/she develops a new technology.

  4. Thanks for bringing up the issue. Indeed, this has been a problem.

    I am now wondering WHEN the ethical debate should begin?

    At the stage of research (i.e. way before application of the research)?
    At the stage of development (i.e. one step before application)?
    At the stage of application (i.e. after it is being used)?

    I need to look into this detail, but if we look at genetics, I believe the ethical issues were raised when they realized that the science could actually be applied to clone animals (i.e.during development).

    But in IT, we frequently only think about the issues after application.

    Again, these are unjustified thoughts that I need to look into further…

  5. I think it is important to think about the potential negatives aspects of a technological development as it is conceived and definitely before it is being used.

    However, this is not possible in many cases – we may not have the foresight to predict whether a given technology will be used for negative reasons. In fact it is interesting to note that so many times we don’t even fully understand the potential positive benefits of a developed technology – along with the development of the Internet came a plethora of positive as well as negative issues that the creators obviously did not originally intend.

  6. @DaiYong – Solid point there – I think I’d agree with you that Google should blur any sensitive parts on the map. I’m not sure whether there are any laws governing this, because if Google can get such pictures of sensitive areas so easily then I feel it shouldn’t be a problem for a terrorist or a malicious user either.

    Anyway censoring certain areas of Google Earth is a natural fix to this issue and I believe that’s what is happening.

    Do you know if there’s any international law prohibiting the use of satellites to take images of different countries? There can’t be one or else Google would have a law suit against them by now, but I feel it’s time such laws are created to make this issue more clear for everyone.

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