Google Earth used in Mumbai terrorist attacks

Chicago (IL) – The terrorists who attacked several locations in south Mumbai apparently used Google Earth to memorize digital satellite images of the city in order to find their targets and coordinate their attacks. Google is in the process of upgrading the application, but it is clear that privacy and national security advocates will reanimate the discussion whether Google provides too much satellite image data to civilians.

Mumbai terrorists reportedly were instructed to memorize satellite imagery of Mumbai streets displayed in Google Earth so that they could find their targets. Indian officials in charge of investigation discovered this fact during the questioning of the only captured suspect. The police also learned that the terrorists relied on satellite phones and GPS equipment to navigate to their targets. 179 people lost their lives in the attack on India’s financial and entertainment capitol last Wednesday. At least 28 of the victims were foreigners, including six Americans and eight Israelis. The terrorists attacked a restaurant, a railway station, a residential complex and two hotels, one of them Taj Mahal, often desceribed as one of architectural wonders of the world.

It is not the first time that Google Earth was singled out as a potentially dangerous tool in the hands of terrorists. India’s former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam warned in 2005 that unrestricted availability of detailed satellite imagery from services like Google Earth might help terrorists to carry out attacks. Security agencies in India, China and other countries have been concerned that Google Earth exposes their defense installations and unveil supposedly secret military installations. Media also reported that  protesters in London used Google Earth to plan how to get to the rooftop of the Parliament building in London.

The free application available for Windows, OS X and Linux desktops allows anyone with an Internet connection to zoom in on satellite images of almost any location on the planet. It has generated more than 400 million downloads since its introduction in 2005.

The Pentagon noted on several occasions it is not comfortable with the tool which gives potential adversaries access to a birds-eye view of nation’s military installations. The Pentagon then instructed Defense Department installations across the U.S. to prevent Google teams from taking panoramic views of the Pentagon and allowing street views of military bases.

Those who dismiss the argument point to the fact that Mumbai terrorists did not attack military installations, adding that the terrorists could have obtained similar information about the city from tourists guides and printed maps.

Despite pressure from the Pentagon, Google is now upgrading satellite image data in Google Earth to an even higher resolution. However, Google has hit the ceiling set by government regulations, which cap commercial satellite imagery to a 50-centimeter resolution. Google is re-taking satellite images of the planet surface with a 4300 lbs satellite called GeoEye-1. It is the highest-resolution commercial satellite capable of taking images at a resolution of almost 41 centimeters. On October 7, the satellite captured images of Kutztown University in Pennsylvania in stunning detail.

GeoEye-1 is shared between Google, who sponsored the satellite, and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), which paid half the costs associated with its development. Google and the NGA plan to launch Geo-Eye 2 by 2012, which will offer a 25-centimeter resolution. Due to aforementioned government regulations, the satellite image data shown in Google Earth will remain restricted to 50 centimeters.