Researcher uses Google Earth to track India's nuclear program

The Indian government has said previously that Google Earth exposes sensitive imagery

The Institute for Science and International Security in Washington has used imagery from Google Earth to arrive at the conclusion that India may be constructing a gas centrifuge plant for uranium enrichment for military purposes, reinforcing Indian fears that Google Earth can be misused to compromise national security.

The imagery in Google Earth is built from information that is available from a broad range of both commercial and public sources, a Google spokeswoman said in an email. "The same information is available to anyone who buys it from these widely-available public sources".

"In occasional instances in which we get requests to blur portions of our imagery for national security purposes, we're open to reviewing those requests in partnership with local governments," the spokeswoman added.

R.K. Sinha , director of India's Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, did not comment on whether the center had asked Google to blur the images of the facility. "In national interest it is not appropriate to take notice of any news item based on imagery of vital installations," Sinha said in an email. "I hope you will also share this view."

In 2005, India's former president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam , criticized Google Earth and other online satellite mapping services for exposing sensitive installations in developing countries to terrorists.

ISIS is a nonprofit organization, focused on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.

The research published by ISIS senior analyst Paul Brannan had four clear images, said to be of India's Rare Materials Plant, which were credited to Google Earth.

Google Earth is becoming an increasingly useful tool in providing transparency for the general public on the issue of nuclear proliferation, Brannan said in an email. "Only a few years ago, wide swaths of the earth were only available in low-resolution imagery. Today, not only can people see more and more parts of the world in high-resolution, but Google Earth is also more frequently updating its platform with newer imagery," he added.

The Indian authorities have been concerned about any collection of imagery by online service providers like Google. The Internet giant's attempt to collect imagery in Bangalore for its Street View was blocked in June by the local police.

The terrorists that attacked various locations in south Mumbai in 2008 used digital maps from Google Earth to learn their way around, officials investigating the attacks said at the time.

"It is quite understandable that after the terrorist attacks in the country, which are believed to have used Google Maps, the local authorities are worried about this exposure," said an analyst who declined to be named. Google Earth and other mapping services make the imagery available easily online, he added.

India's argument that public imagery of its nuclear sites should be unavailable to the public or blurred because terrorists could use the information is a red herring, according to Brannan. The imagery is publicly available through commercial satellite imaging companies anyway, and Google Earth is merely one avenue of presenting the images, he said.

"And where would one draw the line on censorship ?" he asked. "The public's right to know about nuclear proliferation greatly outweighs these arguments."

India and arch-enemy Pakistan are not signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and both are known to have nuclear weapons. Agreements in 2008 between India and the U.S. and some other countries allowed them to cooperate and do commerce in civil nuclear areas, while allowing India to keep its military nuclear facilities separate.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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