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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

California State Legislator Wants To Limit Info On Maps To Block Terrorists

Citing the Mumbai terrorists’ statement that they used Google Maps as a planning tool, a California legislator (from El Cajon) has introduced a bill which would “not allow online mapping tools from companies like Google Inc. to provide aerial or satellite images of schools, places of worship, government buildings and medical facilities unless they have been blurred.”

Presumably this doesn’t apply only to Google and extends to Microsoft, Yahoo!, MapQuest, Ask and others that offer satellite maps and related imagery. According to a news article the Assemblyman, Joel Anderson, said:

“What my bill does is limit the level of detail [ in Google Earth ]. It doesn’t stop people from getting directions. We don’t need to help bad people map their next target. What is the purpose of showing air ducts and elevator shafts? It does no good.”

If you live in the world of technology it’s easy to quickly dismiss something like this as naive or reactionary or both. That was my first impulse. But it’s also important to recognize the concerns at the heart of this bill, which is unlikely to pass, as legitimate. Technology is moving much faster than the human ability to assimilate and cope with it. To some degree, efforts like this stem from frustration over that fact and represent an attempt to “do something” to address real or perceived problems.

Terrorists are in fact using these tools but they also use other tools as well. The question is: where do we put our efforts and focus?

Would Assemblyman Anderson be equally disposed to limiting access to guns and clamp down on automatic weapons trafficking because automatic weapons are used in these attacks? I don’t know his personal views on guns but Republicans in the US have historically been reluctant to regulate guns in any way. (I’m not trying to suggest that there’s any analogy between guns and online mapping tools.) In this context it’s quite silly to argue that mapping should be regulated when there’s a corresponding refusal to pursue much more dangerous instruments of terrorism.

Limiting “sensitive” information displayed in online mapping has its place but what information should be considered “sensitive”? Indeed, those limitations or restrictions should be defined very narrowly. These tools are now very valuable to people in their daily lives and should remain generally accessible. There’s also the question of free speech; the old First Amendment vs. national security debate: “criticism of US policy gives comfort to terrorists.”

Terrorists will find other access to satellite mapping or ways to plan their attacks if these online tools are curtailed. Indeed, the Internet itself is a vast terrorist planning tool because of the information it makes available.

Limiting what’s displayed on Google Maps, or Virtual Earth, won’t prevent terrorist attacks. The society needs to address the root causes of terrorism in the countries that spawn it (i.e., economic and solical instability). That’s a much more complex and difficult set of problems to address than pointing the scapegoating finger at Google.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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