Throughout the Cold War, satellite and spy-plane imagery of military sites was the sort of information that could start or stop a war or...
NORFOLK, Va. — Throughout the Cold War, satellite and spy-plane imagery of military sites was the sort of information that could start or stop a war or spawn a weapons race. Only people with the highest security clearances got to see those photos.
Today, much of that same information is just a computer keystroke away.
Global-information companies such as Google and Microsoft provide millions of regular folks a bird’s-eye view of everything from U.S. military installations to their own backyards.
The widespread availability of overhead imagery has raised serious questions about the security of military personnel, installations and hardware.
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This month, a photograph appeared on the Internet of the propeller on an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine at Trident Submarine Base in Bangor. A key to the submarine’s ability to deploy and remain undetected, propeller designs have been kept under wraps for years, literally. When out of the water, the propellers typically are draped with tarps.
The propeller image appeared on Microsoft’s mapping tool, Virtual Earth. It was discovered accidentally by Dan Twohig, a deck officer with the Washington state ferry service who was using the program to examine real estate on the west side of Puget Sound.
Twohig, who runs a Web site for mariners, posted a link to the Microsoft images. “My intention of bringing the prop photos to the attention of my readers was in no way malicious,” he said. “I did want to point out the apparent lack of accountability for this type of information being out there for the average Joe to find.”
Such accessibility and dissemination heated up the debate about what’s secret and what’s not in today’s hyper-reactive digital age.
Several Navy watchers said the now-widespread propeller photo marks a first. “It’s the first time I’ve seen that in open source,” said one naval source who asked not to be named. He said that while knowledge of the propeller has been widespread, its appearance and design have not.
The Navy says it was not aware the photos were being taken.
Air Force Maj. Patrick Ryder, a public-affairs officer at the Pentagon, said the Defense Department has never asked that such imagery be obscured or removed. Microsoft executives said the company is willing to blur such imagery if asked.
Google spokeswoman Megan Quinn said satellite and aerial imagery is available from several sources and Google is conscientious about what it releases.
Even if the U.S. government has not protested the new image proliferation, other nations have, said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. For example, in April, India protested Google Earth’s display of its government infrastructure, including “military bases, offices of the prime minister and the president, as well as nuclear facilities,” according to a BBC report.