Sooner or later, Google is going to have to start doing a better job of coming to grips with the collateral damage created by the ever-expanding array of whiz-bang applications that have made it a worldwide phenomenon.
Some of that collateral damage is now landing on the heads of British soldiers, as insurgents are reportedly using images gleaned from Google Earth to pinpoint mortar and rocket attacks against the most vulnerable targets inside military bases, according to the Daily Telegraph, in London.
Google has long operated under a philosophy that holds the company responsible for freeing up as much of the world's information as possible. I'm not suggesting that needs to change -- it has done infinitely more good than bad -- but that the questions and problems arising from that quest will only get louder and more severe.
From the Telegraph report: "Documents seized during raids on the homes of insurgents last week uncovered printouts from photographs taken from Google. The satellite photographs show in detail the buildings inside the bases and vulnerable areas such as tented accommodation and lavatory blocks."
Included in the documents were the camps' exact longitude and latitude.
"This is evidence as far as we are concerned for planning terrorist attacks," said a British officer. "Who would otherwise have Google Earth imagery of one of our bases? We are concerned that they use them to plan attacks."
Google's reply was to acknowledge that Google Earth can be used for "good and bad," as well as to pledge an open mind: "We have opened channels with the military in Iraq, but we are not prepared to discuss what we have discussed with them," a spokesperson told the newspaper. I'm not sure that answer would comfort me if I'm a soldier eating breakfast with only a tent/bull's-eye over my head.
But I'm also not at all sure how much Google can -- or, more precisely, should -- do about the "bad" uses of its services.
Google Earth and Google Maps do have the ability to "pixel out" specific locations -- Vice President Cheney's residence, for example -- but such images are readily available elsewhere for the determined seeker. Does Google have an obligation to deter the less determined? If so, where do the lines get drawn?
Of course, Google has demonstrated in other ways that it is willing to take extraordinary measures when it perceives an abuse of its own tools. In the case I have in mind, the "victim" was not a soldier, but Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who apparently believed an online news organization, CNet, invaded his privacy by Googling him and publishing the results. Google jumped all over that abuse by blacklisting all CNet reporters for a time. It was petty -- and Google never has explained its reasoning.
There's nothing petty about the Google-enabled targeting of soldiers -- and Google should at least step up and fully explain its thinking about such matters.
Good idea: "Principled leaking" of classified or proprietary documents, a time-honored (and imperfect) practice that has altered history for the better.
Horrible idea: Wikileaks, an under-construction Web site that purports to support principled leaking but is actually building a repository of legal, privacy and perhaps national-security disasters waiting to happen.
In a nutshell, Wikileaks will use a wiki to allow anyone -- from the Chinese dissident to the disgruntled/recently fired nincompoop -- to post whatever he or she pleases, safe in the knowledge that their contribution will remain anonymous and intact.
Principled leaking has been a positive force, in large part because standing between the would-be leaker and the public has been a third party -- most often the press -- to make judgments as to whether the benefits of the leak outweigh the societal costs. Perfect? Of course not. But the alternative presented by Wikileaks conjures up images of chaos that are difficult to overstate. (Lawyers, start licking those chops.)