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Google Earth 4.0 becomes a poor man's surveillance and targeting tool


Google Earth 4.0 has become a poor man's surveillance and targeting tool, offering to an individual or a small distributed group what was once the purview of a few nation states. Within a month of releasing this as a private advisory last June, clients advised me that they were able to significantly improve their defensive analysis and their external surveillance:

Google unveiled on Monday a new version of its Google Earth application, which features greater coverage and higher resolution, even showing people walking in some locations--detail you get with aerial photography and not usually satellites. The downloadable Google Earth 4.0 runs on PCs, Macs and Linux-based machines and is available in localized versions in French, Italian, German and Spanish…

"Developers can place images on top of (the map) that span the whole Earth."… Realtors can use SketchUp to build models of homes and put them into maps to show prospective buyers, he said. A repository of links to geographic- and nongeographic-referenced objects that can be used is [available]...

[People] can easily overlay geographic data on top of a Google map without hosting a map on a Web site to create a map "mashup." Google is adding geographic-coding support to Google maps so developers can easily get the coordinates for an street address. [In what is called "participatory mapping," the] Google Earth Community [allows] individuals [to] add personal placemarks to information on the map. More than 30,000 developers around world are using the Google Earth application programming interface, and there have been 100 million downloads of Google Earth…

Benefits that accrue to real estate, architectural engineering and state and local planning applications also accrue to the asymmetric attacker. Military and homeland defense assets that rarely venture beyond their classified, multi-spectrum battlefield Command & Control (C2) systems will forget that the asymmetrical attacker now has a "good enough" C2 targeting and surveillance system available courtesy of the global web browser interface. For those who doubt, in Google's own words:

Defense & Intelligence

When lightning-quick decisions are required, high performance systems alone are not enoughcomputing tools must be easy to use and provide full context. Google Earth's compelling display of complex geospatial data offers powerful yet visual analytic capability in a format that is fast, fluid, and intuitive. No other product offers the rapid situational awareness of Google Earth.

Google Earth breaks the chains of traditional "click and wait" map access. Users can fly through massive datasets with the speed of a video game, even when the data is resident on a large network accessed by hundreds or thousands of other users. With Google Earth's integration tools, you can leverage and extend your existing data and systems, providing more access to more data by more peopleturning information into understanding.

Google Earth technology offers critical capabilities to security, defense and intelligence users through

  • Enhanced Situational Awareness
  • Easy Collaboration
  • Increased Data Value

By leveraging and extending your existing systems to more users, Google Earth helps you extract more value from your current data assets. Defense and intelligence applications include:

  • Mission planning, training, and simulation
  • Aerial imagery distribution to geographically dispersed operations
  • Visualization of tracked assets and personnel in the field

Homeland Security

Risk assessment is not an option, it's a must. Yet fewer challenges are greater than sorting through the mountains of disparate government and commercial sources for the right information to complete the assessment task. Google Earth solutions cut through the clutter of geospatial databases, allowing analysts and operatives to get the job done effectively and in record time.

Google Earth lets you distribute access to more people, providing fast and fluid, interactive earth views streamed over secure networks or the Internet. By fusing imagery, terrain, and GIS data, Google Earth lets the user focus on their task at hand, not their software system. Superior ease of use allows virtually anyone to view, grab, pan, and zoom through earth imagery and GIS data in minutes. Plus a rich suite of tools lets users visually inspect and analyze geographic features.

As the only company to aggregate a national database of contiguous US imagery, geographic features, roads, and business listings, Google Earth provides not only enterprise software but also complete solutions with integrated data...

By placing information into context, Google Earth converts data into understanding. Homeland Security applications include:

  • Critical infrastructure vulnerability assessment and protection
  • First responder site familiarization and planning
  • Pattern visualization of surveillance data

An excellent addition for surveillance and training is Google SketchUp, a 3D modeling program that allows users to "create 3D models" of houses, buildings, vehicles, ships, etc., and then "place them in Google Earth, post them to the 3D Warehouse, or print hard copies." Users can then take oblique "imagery" of a target for familiarization, sightline and masking planning. As users pause over a Google Earth location, markers are displayed for that area, models included.

As Google Earth matures, innocent users will add more 'targets' without the asymmetrical attacker having to do so. See, for example, the renderings of Buckingham Palace, White House, Brooklyn Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge, Pentagon, Chrysler Building, Cœur Défense "Earth of Defense" (Two towers in La Defense near Paris), US Bank Tower (originally called the Library Tower, tallest building in Los Angeles), AT&T Park (San Francisco Stadium), and Deutscher Bundestag (German parliament).

"Google's easy-to-use mapping API has created an explosion of map "mash-ups," applications that add features or data to Google's map interface. Whether the mash-ups display store locations, gasoline prices, or time and weather on a map, ultimately it's the data that makes these mash-ups interesting." Mashups offer a good Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) (also here) for surveillance and targeting as it is one of the few current instances were there is good "predictability of the data format" (boldface in original):

[T]here's near-universal agreement on how to format an address. OK, there might or might not be a city name, not everyone punctuates the same way, sometimes the zipcode's in a different place, but overall the structure's very well-defined, and Google is smart enough to handle most of the variations. It's almost a de-facto microformat, without the angle brackets.

This is what makes mapping mashups so easy, and so untypical of the kind of mashup challenges people face in the real world: the critical data is already structured according to a specification that all of us internalize by the time we graduate from junior school. The same is true of names, dates, time of day, quantities and dimensions — which incidentally constitute most of the building blocks of information that go to make up those few microformats that have been defined — oh, and prices, which brings us back to stock tickers.

Undefined on that list are a huge mass of information points that are necessary for doing business, which is why mashups are making slow progress in the enterprise — and for that matter, why service-oriented architectures are making slow progress, too... In the enterprise, there is no semantic commonality and agreement... Each application and separate database has its own data structure for 'customer', 'product', 'order', 'line item', and so on. This is the semantic minefield that most SOA projects get bogged down in. It's not unusual for a single organization to discover it's got fifty or sixty different ways of structuring a customer record. No SOA infrastructure is capable of sustaining the overhead it would take to mediate between all of those different structures. Converging on a single format is probably unrealistic, but [it's] essential to consolidate the number of variations into low single figures.

I would think that there is merit in checking for telltale signals of data drawn for a hostile mapping application as opposed to a purely commercial one. Were I an intel organization, I would be very curious about particular Google Earth and Google Map users.

Google Maps, the fool's gold of mashups
Posted by Phil Wainewright @ 8:35 am
July 6, 2006

Google Earth zooms in
By Elinor Mills
Story last modified Tue Jun 13 06:42:34 PDT 2006

A Google Maps mash-up
Integrate external data with the Google Maps API
By Sumit Bando and Darius Kasad
January 16, 2006

Putting the SOA Infrastructure Together: Lessons from SOA Leaders
Maximizing the Value and Success of SOA
An SOA Leaders Council Whitepaper
November 20, 2005

A Journey to a Thousand Maps Begins With an Open Code
New York Times
October 20, 2005
Correction Appended

What is service-oriented architecture?
An introduction to SOA
By Raghu R. Kodali
Java World
June 13, 2005

Gordon Housworth

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