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Kalam objects to Google’s images of sensitive sites

October 19, 2005

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NEW DELHI, Oct 18: Indian military analysts are divided over whether Google’s satellite image service, which the president has warned could help terrorists find targets, poses a serious threat to national security.

Indian President Abdul Kalam has raised the alarm over the US-based search engine’s website http://earth.google.com, launched in June, which allows users to access sophisticated images of sensitive military and political sites.

“I don’t think it poses a security threat,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, the deputy head of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, a military think tank based in New Delhi.

“Satellite pictures are available commercially these days for a price. We have to realize that this is part of technology enabling characteristics of the present times,” he said. “This is the reality and we have to deal with it.”

Indian media reports said the Google satellite service allowed browsers to view high-resolution images of installations such as the Mumbai headquarters of India’s western naval command.

“Users can zoom close enough to take a reasonably good look at the deck of India’s lone aircraft carrier. Browse around and you can stroll past piers where warships of all kinds and submarines are docked,” the Times of India said.

The site contains clear aerial photos of India’s parliament and the president’s palace in New Delhi, prompting Mr Kalam to sound a warning that he was worried ‘developing countries, already in danger of terrorist attacks, have been chosen’ for exposure.

The website provides a limited free service and a paid site that allows users to see major geographic features and towns, according to the company.

Google said it does provide high-resolution images which reveal details of buildings in most major cities in the United States, Western Europe, Canada, and Britain.

A spokesman for Mr Kalam said that the president had asked officers to check ‘whether the images pose a threat to national security’.

Another senior government official said South Korea, Thailand and some other countries also had expressed concern.

“It is not only India which has reservations about this, others have problems too,” he said.

An Indian navy source said the pictures in themselves ‘do not pose a serious threat to security’.

Another army officer agreed.

“Everyone knows where the (Indian) president’s palace is, everyone knows how many rooms it has — these details are there in school books. As for the location, there is no mystery about that either.”

The officer noted that satellite imagery is not a foolproof tool, and cited the United States’s failure to detect preparations for India’s May 1998 nuclear tests.

“Preparations for the test were begun a month in advance but no one got a whiff of it,” he said.

“But US satellites did pick out that some tanks had been moved close to India’s borders with Pakistan in 2002,” he said, referring to a tense nine-month military standoff.

“Washington did ask New Delhi about the tank positions in the summer of 2002,” he recalled.

Rahul Bedi, an analyst with the Jane’s Defence Weekly, said satellite images like those made available by Google could make the Indian defence services’ operational plans vulnerable to prying.

“If the image one day shows a concentration of troops in one position and on another day at another place, it does cast a certain shadow over operational plans,” he said.

PAKISTAN DECISION: The Pakistan government forced aid agencies to remove satellite pictures of earthquake-affected areas in Azad Kashmir, apparently fearing the photos could compromise national security, the British science journal Nature said on Tuesday.

Three days after the quake struck Kashmir on Oct 8, Islamabad appealed for high-resolution satellite pictures to help relief efforts, the journal said in an article on its website nature.com.

Such pictures can be of vital help in planning logistics, such as identifying which roads are open, which settlements are isolated and whether aftershocks could trigger landslides or breach dams.

Last Friday, an organisation called Charter on Space and Major Disasters put a series of high-resolution pictures of the quake zone on its website, but pulled them off again just hours later, the article said.

The charter was set up by a consortium of space agencies in 2000 to supply satellite images and data to communities in need of relief following a disaster.

Nature, quoting a senior official at the charter, said the pictures had been removed at Pakistan’s request.

“It feared the images could compromise security in the Kashmir region — an area that has long been disputed territory between India and Pakistan,” the article said.

“The UN and other aid agencies need Pakistan’s cooperation on the ground, and had no choice but to comply,” it said.

—AFP