Don’t Be Evil: Terrorists Use Google Earth

We're all used to the idea that jihadists use the Internet to spread propaganda materials and share videos of "martyrdom operations"; clearly not all the fruits of Western society's liberal ways are equally deserving of scorn. But the Al-Aqsa Martyrs … Read More

By / October 25, 2007
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We're all used to the idea that jihadists use the Internet to spread propaganda materials and share videos of "martyrdom operations"; clearly not all the fruits of Western society's liberal ways are equally deserving of scorn. But the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade are employing the power of technology to strike at their foes in a new way; they're using Google Earth to help them target their rocket attacks on Israel.

"We obtain the details from Google Earth and check them against our maps of the city centre and sensitive areas," Khaled Jaabari, the group's commander in Gaza who is known as Abu Walid, told the Guardian.

Abu Walid showed the Guardian an aerial image of the Israeli town of Sderot on his computer to demonstrate how his group searches for targets.

You can watch the video here. This isn't actually the first time militants have used Google's satellite mapping technology to target their enemies, either; the British Army have been similarly targeted in Iraq, with groups sympathetic to Al-Qaeda said to have used satellite photographs from the website to target British forces in Basra at the beginning of this year.

On that occasion, Google were tight-lipped about what (if any) action they might take, but bloggers quickly noticed that Google Earth images of Iraq were being modified and censored, with Google apparently reverting to 2002 satellite images, which for obvious reasons did not show coalition bases. Their response to the latest allegations is similarly coy:

"We have paid close attention to concerns that Google Earth creates new security risks," said the company in a statement. "The imagery visible on Google Earth and Google Maps is not unique: commercial high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery of every country in the world is widely available from numerous sources. Indeed, anyone who flies above or drives by a piece of property can obtain similar information."

Whether Al-Aqsa terrorists find it easy either to drive by or to overfly Israeli bases, let alone buy satellite photos of them, must be a matter for some conjecture. But it's not unreasonable to assume that Google may bow to pressure and take at least some steps to neutralise sensitive military information that could be used to target rockets, though they may not choose to broadcast the fact for fear of setting too broad a precedent.

It's not like Google don't bow to pressure when their bottom line is threatened. Their corporate motto, famously, is "Don't Be Evil" (brilliantly parodied, inevitably, by the Onion) (edit: not "Do No Evil", as I erroneously had it in the first draft). But "See No Evil" might be equally appropriate in other contexts. Their willingness to roll over for the Chinese government for the sake of a buck (well, quite a few bucks) was widely condemned last year; click on the link, for example, to see what you get when you type "Tiananmen Square" into Google China. More seriously still, Yahoo is alleged to have given the Chinese government confidential electronic records that helped them track down and arrest two dissident bloggers last year. For companies that expend so much hot air on the subject of individual self-realization and the empowering qualities of technology, their hypocrisy is pretty nauseating to behold.

Governments are notoriously bad at keeping pace with developments in cyberspace, but Congress, at least, is taking this issue seriously. Yesterday a bill that would prevent Internet companies from disclosing such information to Chinese and other governments was backed by the Foreign Relations Committee, and now stands a chance of becoming law. (Of course, there are some delicious double standards at work here; Google have been fighting to keep user data secret from the US federal government for ages now.) Repressive governments will always have the tools to crack down on internal dissent, but hopefully in the future it may be that little bit more difficult to simply shut down access to the Internet, as the Burmese junta did last month during the pro-democracy protests.

Ultimately, though, repressive regimes, like terrorists, will always use the freedoms and ‘weaknesses' of liberal democracies to their advantage. Osama bin Laden may want a return to the medieval Caliphate, but that doesn't mean Al-Qaeda's next attack on Manhattan will use horses and scimitars. Disgruntled Muslim extremists can get the plans for the London Underground just as easily as Clooney got the blueprints for the Bellagio, and Google are right to point out that the information they provide through Google Earth is not fundamentally any different to a lot of data that's already in the public domain. The wider question is whether our purposes are best served, in the longer term, by the restriction of information or by its free, unfettered flow to all corners of the globe. I think it's pretty clear that the correct answer is the latter.

Without wishing to conflate the Al-Aqsa bastards, the Iranian mullahs and bin Laden's mob into one grand pan-Islamic conspiracy, like a particularly gung-ho GOP presidential candidate, we can generalise to this extent; these people trade on ignorance and fear, just as the Burmese military and other repressive regimes around the world do. Our best hope for turning things around, as we approach the second decade of this century, lies in helping people throughout the world take more control over their own destinies, while at the same time increasing the amount and quality of the information available to them to make those choices.

In a sense, it's no different from the mission of Cold War initiatives like Radio Free Europe, with one crucial difference; rather than constantly being on ‘transmit' mode, the new technology allows us – indeed, demands – that we both send and receive. We have to have enough faith in our values to see that, in the long term at least, we can only gain from the free exchange of ideas, because – whisper it softly – quite a lot of the time our ideas are just better. That's easy for me to say, I guess, because I'm not in range of the Al-Aqsa Brigade's rockets. But I am in range of Al-Qaeda's bombs, and my apartment is on Google Earth, and my response is just the same. We should be doing everything we can to ensure that companies like Google and Yahoo live up to their mission statements; that they should not only not be evil themselves, but permit no evil on their watch.

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