When the popular search engine Google debuted a free global location tool in June, Internet users were given an opportunity to view full-color satellite photos from thousands of far-flung areas - from the Rocky Mountains to the Taj Mahal.
But this fall, Google Earth (www.earth. google.com) encountered an unexpected backlash: complaints from government officials who believe easy availability of high- resolution satellite images compromises their national security.
In India, President Abdul Kalam expressed concern that terrorists could use Google Earth to plan assaults on the Indian Parliament, which shows up clearly in one of Google's aerial photos. The program disproportionately endangers "developing countries, which are already in danger of attacks," Mr. Kalam said at an October meeting of police officials in Hyderabad.
Other nations have similar concerns. Operators of the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in Sydney, Australia, have argued that Google's satellite data makes their facility a sitting duck for terrorists. In South Korea, officials have expressed concern that online images of its military bases and the presidential Blue House could give rival North Korea a strategic advantage.
Experts are divided as to what recourse these nations have. International complainants aren't likely to get far with requests that US federal regulators crack down on Google, says Ray Williamson, a research professor at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. "From a legal standpoint, they haven't got a leg to stand on," he says. "There's no law on the books about this, so the government's not likely to limit the availability of these images."
If any of the concerned nations approach the US government directly, Professor Williamson explains, their grievances would go through the State Department before being referred to the NOAA licensing bureau, which regulates satellite-image distribution by private companies like Google.
But official concerns about satellite images offered by Google might be better received at the United Nations. A 1986 UN resolution states broadly that data-gathering activities such as satellite photography "shall not be conducted in a manner detrimental to the legitimate rights and interests of the sensed State."
As a result, UN member countries must see to it that no nation feels threatened by the content of satellite images online, says Ram Jakhu, a professor of space law at McGill University in Montreal. "The US is under obligation to make sure these images are not being distributed in a manner other countries consider harmful," he says. "It's in the interest of all countries for these complaints to be addressed."
The existence of precedent, however, may harm the complainants' chances of being taken seriously by US authorities. The majority of satellite images available on Google Earth come directly from government sources, like the US Geological Survey's Landsat, which have longstanding open-data policies. The Land Remote Sensing and Policy Act, passed in 1992, states that keeping Landsat an "unclassified program that operates according to the principles of open skies and nondiscriminatory access" is in America's best interest.
Other Google Earth photographs come from open-access commercial sources such as Digital Globe and MDA Federal Inc. "The images we display are usually one to two years old and are available in lots of other forms," says Bret Taylor, a product manager at Google.
Indeed, Google holds no proprietary rights to the photos it displays, many of which were part of the public domain long before the program's debut. More than 3,000 artificial satellites are currently in orbit around Earth collecting photographic and other data. Much of it is accessible to any interested researcher or buyer. "High-quality satellite data has been commercially available for many years," says Michelle Petrovich, a spokeswoman for the US Department of Homeland Security. "We've always taken that into consideration in coming up with security measures."
Beyond operating within the law, Mr. Taylor adds that Google images are providing an important public service. "During hurricane Katrina, we released detailed images of affected areas, and rescuers were able to save lives as a result," he says. Taylor adds that the company is willing to negotiate with foreign officials. "We take security issues very seriously and are willing to talk with representatives from individual countries," Taylor says, though he declines to state whether meetings with specific nations had taken place.
How far countries pursue their disputes with Google depends on the level of the perceived security risks, Professor Jakhu says. If a nation's concerns are minor, it will likely be reluctant to speak up and jeopardize existing diplomatic ties, he says, but if a threat looms large enough, foreign officials may be willing to step on some toes.
"It's like any dispute at a personal level," Jakhu says. "If my neighbors' pigeons got into my yard, I wouldn't start a big fight about that, because I wouldn't want to damage our relationship. But if they put a snake in my children's room, that's a much more serious matter and would warrant a bigger response."