President Kalam’s complaint against satellite imagery for the masses

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.

9 thoughts on “President Kalam’s complaint against satellite imagery for the masses”

  1. Had this been any other president, prime minister or politician, I’d hardly have cared. But coming from a celebrated nuclear technology scientist, former head of a sophisticated and rather secretive organisation that spent decades breaking barriers of technology – earlier the exclusive preserve of the rich nations – I think that is rather disappointing.

    The scientist president surely knows that much higher resolution imagery of each and every inch of the country, including all the nuclear and defence installations, is available on the open market. Not only this, Indian maps at very high scales are available in other countries but an Indian needs to get a security clearence for maps for his own motherland. Must the government always try to save Indians from themselves?

    The Indian military itself has put out a clarification about the uselessness of 2 year or even 6 month old imagery in planning attacks on military installations. If one can actually plan a better attack using satellite photos of important government buildings, it is obvious that the government isn’t using the very same satellite photos – available to them for a far longer period than terrorists – to improve security and remove vulnerabilities. Is this a good reason to curb advancement of technology or is this another attempt by the government to curb freedom in the name of security?

  2. a celebrated nuclear technology scientist

    Are we talking about our President here? As far as I know, he was never a nuclear technology scientist. Actually there is an even bigger discussion going on about whether he can be called a scientist and whether the ‘Dr.’ associated with his name is warranted.

  3. Apologies for that bit of misinformation. Yes, he wasn’t a nuclear scientist. God knows where I got that gem from!

  4. The images on Google Earth are approximately 3 years old and not real-time. So, knowing which aircraft were parked where 3 years ago provides really no useful information that enemies of the state cant acquire elsewhere.

  5. So much for making India a first world country by 2020! Lack of freedom to information is the same “Rushdie” phenomena of Indian establishment which is corollary to economic freedom. Default state of Indian state is curbs on freedom on all sorts. Access to information is only allowed when it really really necessary – political backing help – and that too one can get hands on mostly stale information. Economic freedom is slowly changing because of lobbying groups and necessity. Other freedoms have no such groups and apparent necessity. We will see if the new Right to Information act helps – may be help Indian drivers with better road maps!

  6. Doesn’t anyone else think that blanking out areas in a map will only alert people to the presence of sensitive installations there? Seems like a bad solution to the problem. Besides as others have pointed out these images/information are/is available(and have been so for some time now) and as technology progresses it will further increase the ease of their availability. If the Indian defense establishment/President is only waking up to this fact now, it is really a sorry state of affairs.

    Also, if companies like Google/MSN have hi-res maps for civilian use, one can only surmise the technology that is put to military use. Shouldn’t the Indian establishment be trying to counter that as well?

  7. Atleast someone is voicing it out. If the sensitive images exist elsewhere, Indians need to make sure they don’t exist anymore. Its a little bit surprising that the President himself had to voice this concern, this might mean no one else did, and the urgency involved with the issue. America recently sounded a terror alarm for it institutions in India (similar to the regular yellow\orange codes that they prefer in America\UK). The President had to say it out aloud himself because of this reason too. May be that’s where the ‘developing countries’ came from.

    The President is absolutely on the right side when he calls for for new laws to restrain dissemination of such material. There is a reason why even America doesn’t allows it, even if the maps are years old. Its not like they are picnic spots whose maps need to be on the net. Who else will need those maps other than the adversaries of a nation?

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