June 04, 2007

Google and the JFK Bomb Plot: The Censorship Circus

Greetings. The Google Street View controversy hasn't even had time to cool off yet, but today we have some commentators musing about the desirability of major censorship of Google Earth and similar services. You see, word is that the wannabe terrorists who were talking about blowing up JFK Airport fuel supplies were making extensive use of Google Earth imagery, as do millions of law-abiding non-terrorists of all stripes, of course.

Calls for massive imagery censorship, presumably to blot out every conceivable terrorist target from the public's online view, have a certain appeal among those who always view the Internet and most of its users with suspicion. The logical outcome of this reasoning could vastly alter Google's imagery data storage requirements -- removing enough photos to make the lords of censorship happy would reduce the Google Earth file system to something akin to a single "404 Not Found" page.

Let's get this straight. While there are admittedly a very limited number of extremely highly sensitive locations for which censorship of satellite imagery at Google Earth resolutions can be justified, attempts to extend such imagery blocking to broadly cover possible terrorist targets would not only be ineffective at its stated purpose, but actually a potential disaster for public safety.

Ineffective -- since there are myriad sources for photographic data relating to the vast number of sites -- from shopping centers to power substations and transmission lines, from schools to chemical plants, that might potentially be targets. Most of these are subject to much more detailed photography by average citizens who have ordinary access to the "targets" and environs. Surprise, removing images from Google Earth doesn't make the locations themselves vanish!

Trying to hide most such images can be a public safety disaster in much the same way as overblown efforts to block the public's access to so-called Critical Infrastructure Information (CII). All too frequently, these are merely convenient cover-ups for sloppy and dangerous operations that themselves put the public at immediate safety risks that are far more likely than the theoretical risk of terrorism at such locations.

Given the world we live in, it would be ludicrous to argue for total public access to all information. On the other hand, there are those whose fear of information would turn much of the Internet into that dead-end "404" -- under government edict. Attempts to link Google Earth with the JFK plot fall firmly into this category.

Absolute safety, or absolute government power? There's really no difference.


Posted by Lauren at June 4, 2007 09:15 PM | Permalink
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