WORLD: Look what you can find on Google

Countries fear that tools similar to Google Earth will leave sensitive locations open to terrorist attacks

The Straits Times
Sunday, October 9, 2005

By Chua Kong Ho

A free software program on the Internet is causing a buzz among map collectors and military buffs but is giving security experts sleepless nights.

The esplanade with its distinctive twin domes can be seen clearly in this picture.

The software, called Google Earth, allows a person to download vivid aerial shots of any building, military camp, foreign embassy and even military airfield at any location on the globe.

Just type in the address and, with broadband connection, the picture pops up on the computer screen within five seconds.

The technological wonder, from the world's most popular search engine, has worried countries such as South Korea and Thailand.

They have complained to Google that sensitive locations can become vulnerable targets for terrorist groups.

Singapore's authorities are aware of Google Earth and the country's security plans have factored in its potential misuse.

In a joint statement to The Sunday Times, the Defence and Home Affairs ministries said: 'As with many technologies and other resources on the Internet, Google Earth has the potential to be used for good or bad ends. This is something we take into account in our security planning.'

The ministries did not say whether they had contacted Google about their concerns or would take steps to restrict the images of sensitive locations here.

But just how powerful is Google Earth?

Very.

The Sunday Times was able to identify buildings belonging to the Ministry of Defence in Bukit Gombak, Changi Naval Base, Pulau Tekong's military camp and at least a dozen other government buildings, foreign embassies and military airfields.

We could make out the tennis court and swimming pool at the Australian High Commission, and see the sand bunkers and greens of the Istana's nine-hole golf course.

The list goes on.

The software, launched in June, has given hours of joy to 34-year-old Mr Chionh Choon Lee.

He spends two to three hours a day marking out government ministries, foreign embassies, MRT stations and shopping malls.

A map collector with a collection of road directories that dates back to the 1970s, Mr Chionh also inserts 'placemarks' - the online equivalent of map push-pins - for easy reference by other online seekers of these places.

However, he draws the line at military installations, he said.

'I stopped at naming them because of security reasons,' he told The Sunday Times.

Other Google Earth enthusiasts, however, have gone ahead and marked out protected installations such as the Changi Naval Base and Paya Lebar Air Base.

Google did not respond to queries from The Sunday Times.

Terrorism experts believe terror groups could increasingly use tools like Google Earth to get location details that even on-the-spot surveillance may not yield.

Dr Rohan Gunaratna, head of terrorism research at Singapore's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, said: 'Most terrorists collect their information from such open-source services. It is important for such services to be more aware of terrorist modus operandi and for governments to take appropriate measures.'

Agreeing, Jakarta-based Jemaah Islamiah expert Sidney Jones said: 'They have used the Web to get a list of multinational companies in Jarkata, so it's not impossible that they would move on to using other aspects of the Internet,' she said.

There are many peaceful uses of Google Earth, of course.

Using the programme, a computer programmer in Italy noticed a dark 'stain' on his property in Sorbelo near Palma. It turned out to be the remains of a 2,000-year-old Roman villa.

For consultant Benjamin Lee, 36, Google Earth was a pleasant if temporary time-filler.

He said: 'I first used it to look at my house. Then I looked at Adam Road hawker centre because I eat there often. After that, I pretty much lost interest.