Indian military analysts are divided over whether Google’s satellite image service, which the president has warned could help terrorists find targets, poses a serious threat to national security.
Indian President Abdul Kalam has raised the alarm over the U.S.-based search engine’s Web site, Google Earth, launched in June. The site allows users to access sophisticated images of sensitive military and political sites.
“I don’t think it poses a security threat,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, the deputy head of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, a military think tank based in New Delhi.
“Satellite pictures are available commercially these days for a price. We have to realize that this is part of technology enabling characteristics of the present times,” he said. “This is the reality and we have to deal with it.”
Indian media reports said the Google satellite service allowed browsers to view high-resolution images of installations such as the Mumbai headquarters of India’s Western Naval Command.
“Users can zoom close enough to take a reasonably good look at the deck of India’s lone aircraft carrier. Browse around and you can stroll past piers where warships of all kinds and submarines are docked,” the Times of India said.
The site contains clear aerial photos of India’s Parliament and the president’s palace in New Delhi, prompting Kalam to sound a warning that he was worried “developing countries, already in danger of terrorist attacks, have been chosen” for exposure.
The Web site provides a limited free service and a paid site that allows users to see major geographic features and towns, according to the company.
Google said it does provide high-resolution images that reveal details of buildings in most major cities in the United States, Western Europe, Canada and Britain.
A spokesman for Kalam said Oct. 17 that the president had asked officers to check “whether the images pose a threat to national security.”
Another senior government official, who did not want to be named, said South Korea, Thailand and some other countries also had expressed concern.
“It is not only India which has reservations about this, others have problems, too,” he said.
An Indian Navy source said the pictures in themselves “do not pose a serious threat to security.”
Another army officer, who wished to remain unidentified, agreed.
“Everyone knows where the (Indian) president’s palace is, everyone knows how many rooms it has — these details are there in school books. As for the location, there is no mystery about that either.”
The officer noted that satellite imagery is not a foolproof tool, and cited the United States’ failure to detect preparations for India’s May 1998 nuclear tests.
“Preparations for the test were begun a month in advance but no one got a whiff of it,” he said.
“But U.S. satellites did pick out that some tanks had been moved close to India’s borders with Pakistan in 2002,” he said referring to a tense nine-month military stand-off between India and Pakistan.
“Washington did ask New Delhi about the tank positions in the summer of 2002,” he recalled.