A California lawmaker’s proposal to require internet mapping services to blur detailed images of schools, colleges, hospitals, and other potential terrorist targets has generated a great deal of attention — much of it criticism.
Many safety experts say the bill would not limit the possibility of an attack, and providers of internet mapping services–such as Google Inc.–say it would be costly for them to implement.
California Assemblyman Joel Anderson, a San Diego-area Republican, said he decided to introduce his bill after reading that terrorists who plotted attacks in Israel and India used popular services such as Google Earth and Microsoft’s Virtual Earth. But Dan O’Neill, president of Boston-based Applied Risk Management, said blurring the images of buildings won’t deter a possible attack.
"Violence on campus is typically committed by a member of the community, and they’re familiar with the campus environment. They probably wouldn’t use [internet mapping services] to plan an attack," O’Neill said. "In my opinion, [the legislation] is almost a complete waste of time."
O’Neill said the mapping systems are likely only one part of the information that terrorists would use to plan an attack.
"Just because it’s blurred out, I don’t think it will deter an attack. They would most likely find another way to get the information they need," he said.
Anderson wants to force internet mapping services to blur detailed images of schools, colleges, hospitals, churches, and all government buildings in California, reviving a debate over whether such images can aid terrorists. The bill also would prohibit internet mapping services from providing street-view photographs or imagery of those buildings and facilities.
If the California Assembly passes the bill, site operators who violate it would be subject to a fine of at least $250,000 for each day the site violates the provisions of the law. An operator who is an executive officer or member of a board of directors who knowingly violates these provisions would be subject to imprisonment in the state prison for one to three years.
But even if the bill becomes law, which experts say is unlikely, it might be difficult to prohibit Google, Microsoft, and other mapping companies from posting such photographs. That’s because those images already are public and often are posted on the institution’s own web site.
"Just taking a picture of a building is not a threat, because these images have been available for decades," said Simon Davies, president of London-based Privacy International, which has been critical of Google for taking photographs without consent.
O’Neill said he thought the bill could be enforced easily, simply by having an entity monitor the internet mapping sites and notify sites that violate the law.
"However, with a $250,000 fine or one to three years in prison, I think people would be sufficiently motivated to obey the law if it passes," he said.
He added that there are many positive uses of the online images.
"The images provide value to prospective students, parents, and other citizens. For example, architects use them for space planning," he said. "And it’s provided for free."
Pam Greenberg, who tracks internet and technology issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said California appears to be the first state to consider restrictions on internet photos of potential terrorist targets.
Google spokeswoman Elaine Filadelfo told the Associated Press that the company was studying Anderson’s bill but noted that it listens to complaints from the public. A Microsoft representative declined to comment.
Google and Microsoft do voluntarily limit online images to some extent.
The White House, the U.S. Capitol, and military bases are found on internet maps but cannot be viewed as clearly as the buildings on the streets that surround them. In most cases, Google and other mapping web sites have removed those sensitive sites by request.
Google also removed shelters for battered women before it unveiled panoramic street-level photographs that show buildings in much closer detail, including possibly who’s coming and leaving.
In addition, the company removed detailed Israeli street images from its Google Earth software after the government there raised concerns that Hamas used online satellite photos to aim rockets.
Anderson’s bill does not target images of homes posted online, an aspect of internet mapping that has led to privacy concerns–including a Pennsylvania lawsuit by a suburban Pittsburgh couple that recently was dismissed by a federal judge.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.