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Legislate Google Earth?

by Susannah Kopecky, published

I once had an acquaintance who was arguing with another friend over the location of a certain beach. Was it 20 minutes South of one city, or 10 minutes North of another? The issue was solved when one whipped out their laptop, opened up Google Earth, and pinpointed the precise location of said beach: problem solved.

You want to find the location of a good ice cream shop within 30 miles of a vacation destination? Consult Google Earth. A great hamburger joint on the way to Montana? Google Earth! You want to make sure the hotel at which you'll be staying, is indeed on the beach? Check, check, check! However, the downside of this technology has been considered by members of the California government as well: that Google Earth may be a national security risk.

In a February 11, 2009 bill titled AB-255, Assembly Member Joel Anderson (R-San Diego) introduced the bill "relating to Internet security."

The gist of the bill is this: A commercial website that "makes a virtual globe browser available to members of the public" would be prohibited "from providing aerial or satellite photographs or imagery of places in this state that have been identified on the Internet... as a school, place of worship, or government or medical building or facility."

However, if the images are available, they must be blurred. The bill further suggests that the Web site or provider would not be able to provide "street view photographs or imagery" of the aforementioned types of facilities. The bill enumerates the punishments (we'll get to that in a moment) but also adds another interesting element: because of the nature of the beast, the passage of such a bill "would create new crimes," and thus the logic goes, would also "impose a state-mandated local program." Basically, in order to keep a tighter lid on information, the bill suggests adding a layer of bureaucracy.

If passed, the bill would also punish those who transgress, with the possibility of prison time ("one, two, or three years in prison") and/or hefty fines ("not less than two hundred fifty thousand dollars ($250,000) for each day in violation").

This bill poses many questions. Unfortunately, in this day and age, there are those who would use the brilliant power of the Internet for seedier and harmful reasons; the bill appears to be a proactive step to preventing the use of sensitive information by those who would use the information for ill.

Some will argue that restricting precise satellite imaging of certain more at-risk facilities would cut into First Amendment rights; however, it can also be argued (by these facilities, including those operating government facilities), that is it also a free speech right to privacy, to have their precise locations kept more, well, private.

Is the bill flawed? Certainly. Could this be construed as a national security issue? Of course, on the off-chance that the Internet and readily-available satellite imaging is used against those who would promote knowledge for knowledge's sake. Is there a need to make a new program to oversee the enacting of one new law? There is no reason to add in additional program; pick one agency to oversee the effort, be it Homeland Security, local police precincts (for the individual buildings in question) or the FBI, and stick with it. Heck, even put the monitoring of this program under the cyber crimes unit of the FBI; there is already a great deal of overlap in federal agencies. A new program would simply cause more confusion.

Update: according to the California State Senate website, AB-255 was in committee, with a hearing date set, though the hearing was "canceled at the request of author." More information on this bill to come, as available.

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