Sourced from stuff.co.nz
By Patrick Crewdson
With one click of a button it now takes mere seconds to leap from Lambton Quay to the peak of Mt Everest – virtually.
The “coolness factor” of a bird’s-eye view of anywhere on the planet – zooming from mountain top to city street in an instant – explains the phenomenal success of Google Earth, according to Stefan Korn of Wellington IT consultancy Igniter.
With a new version of the virtual globe software released earlier this month, and much of New Zealand’s satellite imagery given a major upgrade last year, Google Earth is increasingly becoming a fixture on Kiwis’ desktops.
Worldwide the Internet site has clocked up more than 200 million downloads since its launch in 2005.
But the dangers of offering anyone with an Internet connection high-resolution aerial shots of locations from spy bases to private homes have not escaped notice.
Soldiers in Basra, Iraq, last week found detailed Google Earth print-outs of British military bases in the homes of insurgents believed to be plotting terrorist attacks. A video of a Google Earth search showing a topless woman sunbathing on a rooftop in Denmark sparked privacy concerns – even as it shot to the top of YouTube.com’s most-watched list in September.
Images of some sensitive locations overseas – such as the US vice-president’s house – have been pixelated or blurred amid security concerns.
But a spokesman for Google Earth told The Dominion Post the Internet tool created “no appreciable increase in security risks” because it simply showed what anyone who drove by or flew over a property could see.
The images are updated on average every 18 months.
They come from a range of publicly available and commercial sources – including, in New Zealand, Wellington City Council and satellite imaging companies DigitalGlobe and TerraMetrics.
Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff said Google Earth was among a number of emerging technologies contributing to “privacy pollution”, and the cumulative erosion of personal space should be debated.
Spying on other people’s property was not new, but Google Earth collated satellite imagery in an accessible, easy to use package.
“What is new is the use of some very sophisticated technology to record that same information that’s been done since William the Conqueror got the Domesday Book done.”
Mr Korn said the images were not updated frequently enough to constitute a serious privacy breach. “It’s not like you’ve got a live video stream of someone’s house that you can watch 24/7. It’s a snapshot of a point in time.”
Google’s spokesman would neither confirm nor deny whether any New Zealand agencies had raised security or privacy concerns.
Potentially sensitive sites for which high-resolution images are now available include the prime minister’s house, military bases at Trentham and Waiouru, the top-secret Waihopai spy base, and every prison in the country.
A Defence Force spokesperson said procedures were in place to counter aerial surveillance and the security measures could be upgraded if necessary.
“Say you’re a hypothetical power somewhere in the world, you wouldn’t have a super-tank or super-gun out there in the open anyway. You’d take measures.”
The Corrections Department said Google Earth’s images did not reveal any jails’ security features. But Corrections asked The Dominion Post not to mention that prisons could be viewed. Just in case.