Cheap, easily available satellite imaging has both beneficial and nefarious uses.
India’s President APJ Abdul Kalam pointed out that the availability of free satellite images ‘could help terrorists by providing satellite photos of potential targets’. He further worried that “developing countries, which are already in danger of terrorist attacks, have been singularly chosen” for providing high resolution images of their sites.
On the face of it, he is not wrong. Terrorists, criminals and foreign powers have at their disposal a remarkably efficient tool today that they could only dream of a couple of decades ago. Furthermore, while the company he was referring to does blank out images of sensitive locations (the US White House for example) in some countries, it does not accomodate the sensitivities of other countries out-of-the-box. But Kalam’s point, that “developing countries” have been singled out especially may not be accurate. While the company can be absolved of such wilful mischief, it remains a fact that it has been selective in blanking out information. Understandable given its American origins, but not quite acceptable given its global reach. The company has clarified that it is open to working with the Indian government in order to accomodate New Delhi’s concerns.
But Kalam’s criticism of some specific instances where satellite imagery can be put to nefarious use should not be construed to imply that making such a wonderful resource available free of cost to the public is wrong. For far too long, the India government has restricted the release of accurate maps and topographical information for fear that this will fall into the wrong hands. But this information has innumerable beneficial applications — from disaster management planning, to agriculture, to environmental management, wildlife protection, land use management, exploration, tourism and yes, even simple driving. Availability of conveniently accessible and accurate satellite images therefore, must be seen as technology fulfilling a social and economic purpose that the government of India would have been hard press to provide. Concern for national security cannot be used to justify locking away information and resources that can be pressed to the service in the solution of many of India’s biggest problems.
More generally, the Indian government — including the national security establishment — must stop thinking in terms of preventing abuse by prohibiting use. Apart from restricting the sale of accurate maps, it has, in the past, curbed cellular telephony in terrorism affected areas. These measures may or may not help terrorists, but they sure work to distress and alienate ordinary citizens. India cannot hope to apply ninteenth-century techniques to address twenty-first century technology. It’s a tough one, but the guardians of India’s security must learn how to succeed in the information age, where restrictions on information do not work anymore.
Related Link: This, perhaps, is a greater cause for concern.