The Value of Censoring Google Earth

I’ve been having a continuing conversation with a local / vocal advocate of censoring Google Earth: Michael Gianaris, State Assemblyman from Queens, NY. We disagree on some fundamental points, though I am sensitive to his concerns. I just don’t think he’s properly weighing the harm of censorship against a realistic appraisal of its value.

His argument at first seemed to be that terrorists could use Google Earth to plot attacks. And that was obviously bad. So we should obviously censor sensitive sites in Google Earth to prevent that outcome, despite the 99.999999% of non-terror-plotting uses (or in mathematical terms, 200 million download vs. 1 alleged use of Google Earth to help blow up JFK.)

After talking to him, I find his position to be a bit more nuanced — he readily admits that any image one can get for free via Google Earth can be obtained elsewhere for slightly more time and/or expense. After all, Google doesn’t own its own satellites (yet) — they buy the stuff on the open market like anyone else.

But, he says, if Google voluntarily censors, maybe everyone else will follow their lead. But more importantly, what Mr. Gianaris asserts is that making terrorists go that "extra step" to get good intel will help us catch them — using Google Earth is way too anonymous, he says, whereas they’d have to at least use a credit card to buy the same or better imagery elsewhere.

So I decided to put his theory to the test, which btw, is the same theory of "credit card validation" that ostensibly prevents kids from viewing porn on the internet… Still, I wanted to give it a fair test. I decided to think like a terrorist, at least to see how they might act given a Google-censored Earth.

I picked an apparently "vulnerable" spot — Dick Cheney’s official tax-payer owned and funded residence, pictured below as it appears in Google Earth. (and I want to re-emphasize that this is a thought experiment only — no threat is intended or implied.1)dick1.jpg

I can only assume it’s vulnerable because it’s already censored in Google Earth, and using some really gross pixelation too.

Apparently, someone thinks that if one can see where the VP’s garbage cans sit, one can carry out an attack. And that might actually have some validity. But since I’m not actually attacking anyone, I don’t need to answer that. However, it occurs to me that one might at the very least steal the VP’s garbage, which could theoretically constitute a breach of national security, or a prelude to criminal indictments, or both, depending on the VP.

[BTW, I don’t believe Google censored this area themselves2, though there is no doubt someone intentionally obscured the premises, The Daily Show notwithstanding.]

The question remains: would an actual terrorist mastermind be foiled or undone by a mere photoshop filter?

I don’t think terrorists are particularly bright (if they were, they wouldn’t resort to terrorism). But they have proven themselves to be highly resourceful. I don’t think they’d stop here, so neither did I.

It turns out, these aren’t the only images of Dick Cheney’s official residence. I found an uncensored version of reasonable quality, for the not quite reasonable price of $34.95 (each) from AirPhotoUSA slash GlobeXplorer.3 I didn’t actually have to pay. The previews are probably good enough — who cares about watermarking when we’re talking about censorship. But I decided to be a good citizen slash gedanken terrorist and pay up.

dick2.jpgIn the image at right, I’ve painstakingly added the word "Censored," so that no one can accuse me of actually aiding terrorists (or worse, violating copyrights by giving away unadulterated images from a pay site). My form of censorship is as effective as anyone else’s.

BTW, I purchased this image using a stolen credit card — mine — and used the stolen name on the card — also mine — so that authorities could not track me down if they wanted. However, I entered a phony "ship-to" record under the highly dubious name "Not A. Tourist," so as to arouse suspicion of my intent to not be satisfied with virtual sightseeing.

Clearly, this should have tipped off anyone watching these credit card transactions that I was potentially up to no good — that and the real name on my credit card, which sounds quite Middle-Eastern (it actually is).

But more importantly, the mere viewing coordinates should indicate that I was probably "spying" on Dick Cheney’s apparently vulnerable residence. I now know where the garbage cans are kept.

I imagine if I was already under surveillance or on a list somewhere (which I may now be),  this transaction might be telling. It would certainly be telling after a terrorist did something, at least with "CSI: War on Terror" forensic hindsight. But if someone was under electronic surveillance before he did anything, clever authorities could probably tell what he was looking at in the totally free Google Earth too.4 More importantly, they might know what he was up to through other means, like standard legal wiretapping.

Unless the men in suits are on their way to my front door as we speak, the only thing censorship is good for is making potential terrorists (and me) pay a few bucks for something I can normally get for free.

The value of censorship then is highly quantifiable: one easy credit card payment of $34.95 (not that a dead terrorist would care much about paying it off).

The harm of censorship, on the other hand, is priceless, because it affects everyone in untold ways. I’ve previously made the point that giving government the power to censor ostensibly vulnerable sites will, without checks and balances, lead to censorship that is often more effective at saving the jobs of lazy officials and the finances of unscrupulous companies than saving any of us.

I don’t want to get too political on this blog (see my other blog for that), but what Google Earth is really good for in this case would be distributed intelligence — enlisting the public to find unknown vulnerabilities, or places where the government hasn’t yet done it’s job, and reporting them promptly so they get fixed, ideally before we get attacked again.

After all, the military doesn’t protect missile silos with letters to Google. They both fortify and disguise their sites from access and from most observation. The only way to protect sensitive sites is to actually protect sensitive sites.

I wonder what Mr. Gianaris would say to that?



Ship to:

Item summary:

Not. A.  Tourist
New York,  NY 
10033  USA

Qty Description Price


1. And I want to re-emphasize that this is a thought experiment only — no threat is intended or implied. (see footnote #1).

2. The reason I don’t think Google censored this is because other more important sites nearby are not censored. Also, though there exist other censored sites, they use many different methods — blurring, pixelation, blacking out, which means either Google put Sybil in charge of censorship, or it’s happening closer to the various image sources, which is where it would be more effective.

3. By making this dangerous uncensored imagery available, they should probably be renamed "GlobeXploder."

4. I don’t mean to imply any sort of wiretapping built into Google Earth, but merely that any government official looking at my raw internet packets could fairly easily tell which areas of the globe I’ve been looking at. People have reverse engineered Google’s data packets already, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that the government could, if they had such authority, do the same, at least to an extent.

4 thoughts on “The Value of Censoring Google Earth

  1. It seems that disinformation is better than attempts at obscuration. The VP much more secure if his staff to get notification of QuickBird tasking over the sensitive area and then hide the firing range and torture factilities 😉
    On the other side of things there are benefits to the local police, fire, EMS, civil/soil engineers, and a number other public entities having unfettered access to full data. They can use that to plan.
    For better or worse in New Jersey and California high res areals have been available along with many useful GIS layers for many years now. And nothing has ever happened in NJ 😉

    > BTW, I purchased this image using a stolen credit card —
    > mine — and used the stolen name on the card — also
    > mine — so that authorities could not track me down if they
    > wanted.

    You could have purchased a blanket subscription to further obscure your activities.

    > People have reverse engineered Google’s data packets
    > already, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that the
    > government could, if they had such authority, do the same,
    > at least to an extent.

    Reverse engineered? It is standard WMS + KML isn’t it? I believe you meant that the servers can be spoofed.

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