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ICG Risk Blog - [ Improving COTS availability of open source mapping, imagery and GPS data ]

Improving COTS availability of open source mapping, imagery and GPS data


Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) technology is a frequent topic on this weblog as it provides a great leveler that asymmetric attackers can use against larger, more established adversaries. We overlook this capacity at our peril. Some examples:

This note deals with the rising open source availability of mapping, imagery and GPS data to an asymmetric attacker.

The Register held a humorous competition to "Spot the Black Helicopter" from submitted Google Earth imagery (primarily overhead, not oblique). Imagery that was historically limited to a few nations is now increasingly available on demand, at your PC, at little or no cost. (While there is dedicated imagery available for purchase from US, Russian and European sites, it comes at a price and with potentially traceability.) Imagery that offers a general overhead view of a desired facility in concert with GPS coordinates is available for operational planning purposes. The Register pointed out naval facilities, airfields (and here), airfields and revetments, intelligence, command and chemical facilities, boomers (nuclear ballistic missile submarines) at dockside, nuclear facilities and aircraft carriers at dockside. States such as India and South Korea have protested Google Earth "on the grounds that the globetrotting online service shows sensitive military installations laid bare in a way which might benefit North Korea."

Expect targeting information to be increasingly available as Google forges more commercial sharing relations such as that proposed with commercial real estate's largest data provider, CoStar Group, who "tracks more than 200 bits of data on commercial buildings in the 80 or so biggest markets in the United States and plans to expand to the top 200 markets… sends out teams in specially equipped vans to photograph buildings and use lasers to measure them and calculate their exact centers for mapping… [and using a Google map] drill down into specific information on a given building, not just see it on a map.'' CoStar holds "tenant information [that] includes details on who they are, what they do, how much they pay in rent, when their leases expire and all the phone numbers in buildings."

Independent spin-offs such as Flash Earth use satellite images from Google Maps or MSN Virtual Earth to attempt a better, more efficient rendering of Google Maps using Flash.

The winner of DARPA's Grand Challenge for autonomous (unmanned) vehicles to navigate a 132 mile desert terrain, Stanford's Stanley, used a COTS off-road vehicle and COTS sensors and computers. (The art was in the AI software that defined the vehicle's position, told it what was ahead, and what must be the appropriate response. The majority of competitors used Trimble GPS units capable of "subfoot (30 cm) GPS accuracy" which were "often coupled with an inertial measurement unit (IMU), which can determine speed and acceleration on all axes. An IMU can provide information about the location of the vehicle if the GPS gets interrupted."

Trimble also provides this accuracy in a ruggedized handheld that provides the "subfoot (30 cm) GPS accuracy required by electric and gas utilities, water and wastewater services, land reform projects, and other applications where accurate positioning is crucial."

Also good for targeting and/or ignition of "a GPS-augmented payload that would allow terrorists to track and detonate the payload at the appropriate position" with superior accuracy.

On the less commercial side, Trimble Outdoors has components for "communications and GPS software for your GPS cell phone [and] trip planning software with maps for your PC that can be used on its own or with your handheld GPS or GPS phone." Users can now easily geocache random GPS data, both producing and downloading TopoGrafix LOC or GPS Exchange Format files, that can be input to custom topographic files. (See also It has elements of a battlefield C3 mapping capacity:

  • Research trips posted by other members
  • Plan and create trips on your personal computer using topographical, aerial or street maps of the US
  • Download trips to your GPS receiver or GPS cell phone
  • Use your GPS cell phone for route navigation and tracking
  • Personalize your trips with pictures and notes
  • Share trips with friends and family on-line

Trimble Outdoors navigation allows users to check locations at specific points in a trip while Trimble Adventure Planner allows a user to plan trips "with all the important navigation points marked, using aerial, topographic or street maps to perfectly plan your route… Once planned, you can download your trip to your Nextel phone. With Trimble Outdoors, you have everything you need in one light-weight device: cell phone, GPS receiver with complete GPS navigation capabilities, camera, and walkie-talkie."

Trimble Outdoors posts a trip from Swamp Pt to Monument Pt, Arizona, whose trip summary had 7 routes, 70 waypoints and 2 POIs (points of interest). Trip photos can be appended which in this case provides a means to follow an exciting canyon hike, but could just as easily provide surveillance validation information (trip summary, interactive map and elevation profile).

Trimble Outdoors has samples around urban areas as well - such as Washington DC. One had 53 POIs around the greater DC area (POIs and interactive map). Another was a trip around the Washington Mall, including a visit to the White House, a tour perhaps (way points and map).

Increasingly better and affordable maps and optics technology is making heretofore distant sites such as Area 51, long a source of interest to legitimate aerospace technologist and UFO conspiracist theorist alike, increasingly, albeit teasingly, visible. While Microsoft Virtual Earth has elected to excise overhead imagery of Area 51, leaving only a grayed-out section, Google offers a useful color overhead of Area 51. This image is a hybrid, i.e., a combination of both map and satellite data, but the area is so sparse that 'map' shows only one road approaching the facility at this resolution.

Another of what I call the committed collector community has produced one of the better oblique panorama collages of Area 51:

The panorama was assembled from 16 individual photos, taken with a Canon D-60 digital camera mounted to a Celestron C-5 spotting scope on a Davis&Sanford ProVista tripod with Bogen 410 geared head. The effective focal length was 2000mm [producing] 1/4-meter resolution (4-times higher than the [1/2-meter resolution] shown here [on the website]).

The panorama was "taken in the early morning hours of August 7, 2005" presumably to minimize atmospheric distortion and have the sun behind the camera from Tikaboo Peak which is the only unclass line of site (26 miles) to the facility after the closer "White Sides" and "Freedom Ridge" observation points were reclaimed by the feds in 1995. It is worth clicking onto some of the segments (click the 'skip' in upper right on the annoying screensaver advertisements to get quickly to the image). The images are annotated which makes the accompanying historical notes of building and construction activity more useful. As we have noted elsewhere, even partial 'time sequences' of properly described events provide:

a means of pattern detection, evidence of trend growth or attenuation, changes in underlying assumptions, and the emergence of new players or vulnerabilities.

As optics at all wavelengths improve and more sources of data emerge, it becomes increasingly more difficult to shield all activities all the time. One wonders how long the military will permit access to Tikaboo. [Note that the 'Maps & GPS' section in frame left offer some useful data for Area 51 as well as general topomapping sources.]

Kalam Concerned Over Google Earth
Techtree News Staff
Oct 19, 2005

Google Earth digs deeper
By Jon Ann Steinmetz
Mercury News
Posted on Tue, Oct. 18, 2005

Robotic vehicle adapted human ways of learning
By Mike Langberg
Mercury News
Posted on Mon, Oct. 17, 2005

Google Earth: the black helicopters have landed
By Lester Haines
The Register
Published Friday 14th October 2005 15:55 GMT

Sensing their surroundings
Posted by: Wayne Cunningham
October 10, 2005, 4:12 PM PDT and Trimble Empower Outdoor Enthusiasts to Publish Custom GPS Overlay Maps
Aug. 11, 2005

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Risk Containment and Pricing Public  Strategic Risk Public  Terrorism Public  


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