California lawmaker targets Internet mapping sites

03 Mar California lawmaker targets Internet mapping sites

San Jose Mercury News, By SAMANTHA YOUNG, March 2, 2009

SACRAMENTO—A California lawmaker is targeting Internet mapping sites, fearing their detailed images of public buildings provide a blueprint for terrorists. Assemblyman Joel Anderson, a San Diego-area Republican, decided to introduce his bill after reading that terrorists who plotted attacks in Israel and India used popular sites such as Google Earth and Microsoft’s Virtual Earth. His bill would restrict the images such Web sites could post online. Clear, detailed images of schools, hospitals, churches and all government buildings—what he calls soft terrorism targets—would not be allowed. “All I’m trying to do is stop terrorists,” said Anderson, of El Cajon. “I don’t want California to be helping map out future targets for terrorists.” His bill would make it illegal in California to post close-up images of such buildings. Instead, the images would have to be blurred. Anderson said he got the idea after reading news reports that terrorists had used online satellite images to plan the November bombings in Mumbai, India. “There’s no legitimate reason, in my mind, that a person needs to see where the air shafts are, where the elevator shafts are and all the weaknesses of the building and the parking lot,” he said. Google spokeswoman Elaine Filadelfo said the company was studying Anderson’s bill but noted that the company listens to complaints from the public. “Users can request removal of an image with which they are not comfortable,” she said. A Microsoft representative declined to comment through the company’s public relations firm, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide. If it were to become law, Anderson’s bill faces a potential legal hurdle because many of the images he seeks to have blurred already are public. Schools, hospitals and other community buildings even post photographs of their buildings on their own Web site. “Just taking a picture of a building is not a threat because these images have been available for decades,” said Simon Davies, president of the London-based Privacy International, which has been critical of Google for taking photographs without consent. Anderson’s bill would set restrictions only on images of government buildings, schools, hospitals and places of worship. It does not target images of homes posted online, an aspect of Internet mapping that has led to privacy concerns in the U.S. and elsewhere. In many areas of the country, computer users can find aerial photographs of their house, their child’s school, a local coffee shop or the courthouse. Google also posts panoramic street-level photographs in much closer detail, allowing computer users to scan a building and its surroundings. Privacy advocates say existing state and federal laws offer little protection to citizens who wish to keep their private lives private. “We’re trying to come up with some good ways to distinguish what’s allowable and what’s not allowable,” said Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a nonprofit ethics group based in Falls Church, Va. “There needs to be better protections because there’s risks that just didn’t exist before.” Pam Greenberg, who tracks Internet and technology issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said California appears to be the first state to consider imposing restrictions on Internet mapping sites. The bill is awaiting a committee assignment. Google and Microsoft voluntarily limit online images to some extent. The White House, the U.S. Capitol and military bases are found on Internet maps but cannot be viewed as clearly as the buildings on the streets that surround them. Google also removed shelters for battered women before it launched its Street View application. Detailed Israeli street images were removed by Google Earth after the government there raised concerns that Hamas used online satellite photos to aim rockets. But Google has been unwilling to stop photographing homes and public buildings as part of its popular Street View mapping application. In one case, a Pennsylvania couple whose home can be viewed on Google sued the company for trespassing and unjust enrichment. Pittsburgh attorney Dennis M. Moskal said his clients are victims of a craze by Internet companies to publish as much information as they can online. “It’s now the age of big corporate American technology,” said Moskal, who represents Aaron and Christine Boring of Franklin Park, Pa. “Are we going to let the average person be stampeded by technology?” A judge dismissed the complaint, saying the couple did not prove it had suffered damages, but the Borings have asked the judge to reconsider.