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Google Earth faces terrorist target airbrush bill

Dick Cheney Treatment meets little red schoolhouse

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Concerned that international terrorists are prepping their attacks with help from services like Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth, and Google Street View, a California lawmaker hopes to airbrush certain structural details from countless public buildings pictured on these web-based virtual landscapes.

San Diego-based Assemblyman Joel Anderson recently introduced a California bill that would bar "online mapping services" from serving up overly-revealing images of schools, hospitals, churches, and government buildings.

"This bill does not impact people's ability to go from one location to another on these services," Anderson tells The Reg. "But the current level of detail invites bad behavior. So we're asking these services to limit the level of detail. There's no reason they need to show where all a school's air ducts are and the elevator shafts and all the entry and exit points...

"We shouldn't be in the business of helping criminals map their next target."

Anderson cooked up the bill in response to various news reports that terrorists have already used such services in planning their attacks. According to government investigators in India, the ten gunmen behind November's Mumbai attacks used Google Earth in scouting their myriad targets.

Legal advocates have already urged an Indian Court to ban Google Earth entirely. But Anderson's aim is to edit the satellite imagery service and other tools like it. That would include Microsoft Virtual Earth, which also uses satellite imagery, and Google Street View, which serves up photos snapped at ground level.

A Google spokeswoman told us the company is "happy to speak with Assemblyman Anderson's office regarding this legislation and hope to have a productive conversation." And she wants the world to know that "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."

Microsoft declined to comment.

As it stands, some images on Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual are blurred, including pics of the White House and various military bases. But at least in Google's case, this is not done on request - despite what the AP says. "The satellite imagery in Google Earth comes from third party providers, some of which may blur locations before sharing the imagery with Google. We publish imagery in the form that we receive it," the company explains.

So, when Google Earth blurred Dick Cheney's official VP residence, that wasn't Google's doing. But Google does remove photos on request over at Street View. These photos are snapped by the company itself.

Anderson is under the impression that Google has blurred Google Earth image at the request of certain foreign governments, arguing that his bill would merely duplicate what has been done in other countries. But again, this is not the case.

Others have questioned whether Anderson's bill is pointless because pics of so many schools, churches, hospitals, and governments are already available on the web. But Anderson argues that Google Earth is a different animal. "If a school puts a photograph on its own site, that's opt-in," he says. "And those photographs aren't the same level of detail we're seeing with Google and Microsoft. Those photographs are advertising brochures. They're not mapping out every inch of the building." ®

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