Saturday, November 29, 2008

Google Earth weaponized in Mumbai

My younger son, an Americorps volunteer, has been stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi for the past few three weeks. On Thanksgiving, as he described his camp and its surroundings, his brother went onto Google maps, panned over downtown Biloxi, and zoomed in on the camp buildings in less than a minute.

That's probably why this sentence in a Guardian report of the interrogation of the surviving Mumbai terrorist caught my eye:
Kasab told police that they had learnt about Mumbai's geography using Google Earth.
There are various reports as to how the terrorists got their information. According to the Telegraph, the ten terrorists were trained in small teams in separate camps, then brought together for a digitally assisted briefing when the training was complete:
It was in Rawalpindi that the 10-man team were briefed in detail with digitised images of their prospective targets – the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Hotels, the Jewish Centre and the Victoria Terminus railway station. Each member of the team memorised street names and routes to each location. Kamal [sic - called Kasab in other sources] told his interrogators that most of the targeting information came from a reconnaissance team which had selected the targets earlier in the year.
Other reports suggest that the terrorists had detailed knowledge of the hotel interiors, which I assume could not have come from Google (perhaps from the reconnaissance team?). The Times of India reports that some members of the terror team had stayed under false identiites at Nariman House, the Jewish Center attacked by the terrorists, and that Kasab provided interrogators with the names of locals who provided material aid.

Whatever the various sources, the battleground briefing was highly effective:
Major General RK Hooda, the senior Indian commander, acknowledged the group, the Deccan Mujadeen, were better equipped and had a better knowledge of the battleground than India's soldiers.
Since no missiles were targeted, one might question whether Google Earth was much more than a visual aid, and whether good street maps could not have served the same purpose. In any case, it's unlikely that the public satellite image cat can be stuffed back in its bag -- if Google took down Google Earth, there would doubtless be substitutes. Whether the benefits outweight the risks has abeen much debated; U.S. intelligence agencies, combat troops, and fire and hurricane response agencies themselves use the service. But it's chilling to see one of our ubiquitous technological toys weaponized.

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