Novus Ordo Seclorum
- Category: Strategic Research Review
- Published: Monday, 26 June 2006 10:00
- Hits: 13374
The release of the Google Earth software has met with all sorts of reactions. Though military enthusiasts and lay persons are ecstatic about the prospects of being able to see things from the sky, most of the reactions from governments have been negative.
The Google Earth software provides ordinary users access to high resolution imagery taken from a combination of satellites and airplanes. The basic database seems to come from TerraMetrics Inc., this database has images at 15 meters resolution. However in some places higher resolution images are available (up to 30 cm resolution). Google Earth claims that the data was taken in the last three years. Most of the satellite imagery covering India and Pakistan seems to come from Digital Globe (formerly EarthWatch Inc.). DigitalGlobe relies on data from a QuickBird earth imaging satellite manufactured by the Ball Aerospace and Technology Corporation. The Ball Aerospace and Technology Corporation is a major aerospace contractor for NASA and the US-DOD. Currently Ball Aerospace plans to field a successor to the QuickBird, called WorldView. This satellite will offer sub-meter resolution imagery with great tasking agility. The WorldView satellite’s capability will far exceed current limits on commercial satellite technology. Once the new WorldView satellite becomes available, the Google Earth image provider DigitalGlobe will be able to supply daily updates of images of almost any spot on the planet to Google Earth customers.
It is unclear what contacts if any Google has with the US intelligence community. What is perhaps most likely to attract interest among conspiracy theorists is the fact that Google Earth software originally began as Earth Viewer 3D, a product of Keyhole Inc. The CIA backed venture capital firm In-Q-Tel, once invested in Keyhole on behalf of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). Google eventually bought Keyhole Inc. Google eventually purchased Keyhole Inc. in 2004. Suspicions of a meeting of minds between Google and the US Govt. run high as people believe that the US intelligence community tends to use a number of contractors who gather information by pretending to represent the interests of apparently benign private companies.
The 1-meter resolution imagery is sufficient to identify a wide range of military facilities and activities. Though services like the Navy and Air Force, which have movable assets, are least likely to be compromised at the tactical level, Google Earth's software does enable people to view the overall scale and direction of military activity. An excellent example of this kind of information may be found at the INS Dega facility near Vishakapatanam. The Google Earth images now quite clearly show the full extent of the planned expansion of INS Dega. Building this sort of information from a scatter of tenders issued from the MOD in Delhi or by purchasing the plans for the expansion from spies in the ministry is not impossible, however it takes an extremely large amount of time and money to do that - by contrast you simply point and click on Google Earth.
For the land forces, the risks are somewhat higher. Even a small glance at Google Earth's images for the Thar Desert west of Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, clearly shows a vast range of Pakistani forward garrisons. A number of defence facilities like Surface to Air Missile storage and deployment sites are also very clearly visible from the images. On our side of the border, perhaps the greatest risk exists to Rashtriya Rifles garrisons, the inner layout of some of these is visible. More generally speaking, a number of high-level residences are also at increased risk. The Google Earth images expose the layout of obstacles and security perimeters at these locations. Given the sheer number of high-level residences that are compromised, most places are looking at a expensive security revamps.
People indulging in intelligence support activity also have few reasons to be happy about Google Earth. To see why that might be so - take a look at the images of PAF Pasni. Though most media suggest that Pasni is simply a dusty airstrip used as a re-supply operation for US forces in Afghanistan, Google Earth's images tell a very different story. The Space Imaging Ikonos cameras have caught a TR/U2 on the tarmac at Pasni. This is one of the first publicly released images of a U2 on Pakistani soil. Also visible at the base are a number of paths leading into the mountain south of the airfield. All of this suggests that Pasni is a very large facility - a direct contrast with public pronouncements in the US media.
The mushrooming of a large number of Google Earth enthusiast websites (e.g.www.googleearthhacks.com) has resulted in a dramatic improvement in the quality of the ground information available. If one looks at the images of PAF Masoor in Karachi, a number of files are easily available at internet fora that reveal the positions of major landmarks inside the base. This includes among other things, the officers mess hall, the CO house, the primary school etc... Similar placemarks are available over the internet for the Troposcatter and THD 1955 radars at Arjangarh. The Google Earth placemarks tool enables users to rapidly and coherently transmit high quality ground information over the internet. The ".kmz" files transiting the internet are now perhaps posing one of the greatest risks to national security in places like India. The measure tool on Google Earth enables viewers to measure the size of objects on the ground. A simple application of this along with the basics of antenna theory enables the viewer to calculate the frequencies that an antenna might operate at.
The military utility of this information may be quite debatable but its utility to terrorist groups is less so. Most military thinkers argue that the images on Google are a few years old and cannot really help an adversary plan hostilities. One wonders how difficult it will be for Google or some other company perhaps unrelated to google to offer more recent imagery on a pay-per-view basis. For example a user would zoom into the Google Earth view of his choice and then click on a button on the screen to pay for a more recent view of the same site. It is unclear as how much data Google Earth can pipeline but if its predecessor the www.google.com search engine is anything to go by, the capacity for handling large data sets already exists. Today internet utilization is low in India, but in time it will grow and what will happen once cable operators in places like India start offering internet bandwidth alongside their regular services?
This all seem to be a somewhat distant prospect, but what is perhaps largely beyond debate right now is the value of these images in strategic forecasting and analysis. At the click of a button, if you have the right ".kmz" file, a strategic analyst can pull up a recent copy of the military posture of a country or even see what the major intelligence processing areas in a country are. This could be a great aid to the world - private persons would now be able to keep tabs on their governments and ensure accountability for their actions. The only thing that stands in your way is bandwidth. Given that bandwidth is an issue in places like India, and not an issue in places like the US, Google Earth adds a new dimension to the problems posed by the digital divide and amplifies the information asymmetry that exists between these two worlds.
Google Earth shrinks the level of Government of India’s information dominance and drags us into its version of a new world order – where some company in Colorado decides what part of your national security machinery should be exposed to public view. Concerns in Government of India are hardly misplaced.
The author is a contributing editor. The phrase 'Novus Ordo Seclorum' maybe translated as 'A new order of the ages'. Not paradoxically, the cover photo shows the apron at PAF Pasni, a major Pakistan Air Force base in Balochistan. The image is © Google Earth.
©Security Research Review Volume 2(2) 2006.