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Drying Google Earth in the Microwave, or Do the Bad Guys Really Have an Eye in the Sky?

There have been a couple of odd news articles about Google Earth recently.  From CNET, Innovations battle natural calamities discusses using Google Earth with natural disasters. Amusingly enough,  the reporter from CNET doesn't seem to  be aware that Google Earth has already been used to help with natural disasters. (See my Katrina, Pakistan Earthquake, and Google Earth archives.)

And then there's the somewhat loopy story from The Register, Al-Qaeda probes enemy on Google Earth. My first reaction was, well, duh. Then I read the actual story. It is entirely based on a multiply forwarded email:

It's preceded by the following which gives some cause for suspicion:

It [the email] was forwarded by a reader in the Navy, Mike, who in turn got it from a friend of his in the Marines. You may have seen it making the rounds already. The review of the weapons are one recently returned Marine's opinion [name removed to protect his identity] and does not necessarily mean a consensus has formed. If you scroll to the end you'll also see an assessment of our enemy's capability as well as those of our allies.

However, the email is plausible enough.

I'm not a journalist, but I have to ask: What kind of journalism is that?  This seems more like the kind of thing one checks out on Snopes, not runs as an article. The key claim is this:

5) Bad guy technology: Simple yet effective. Most communication is by cell and satellite phones, and also by email on laptops. They use handheld GPS units for navigation and Google earth for overhead views of our positions. Their weapons are good, if not fancy, and prevalent. Their explosives and bomb technology is TOP OF THE LINE. Night vision is rare. They are very careless with their equipment and the captured GPS units and laptops are treasure troves of Intel when captured.

And the reporter from CNET was not the only one to pick it up. PCPRO did it too.  Here seems to be the entire piece, but again, no author is given, and it may just be a presentation of the circulating email.

Eye in the Sky by Philip K. DickGoogling "and Google earth for overhead views of our positions" produces 272 results, and that cuts out some which are formatted a little differently. In the majority of its appearances, it is presented as fact. And it's all the rage on the rightwing blogs where it is frequently referred to as "the truth" or as "intel," though it even appears in a diary at Daily Kos.

In only one instance in my quick skim through the Google hits did I see someone question the veracity. Someone pointed out that Google Earth images are not real-time and so it is actually impossible for Google Earth to show Al Qaeda "our positions" unless we've been holding those positions for an awfully long time, as seems to be the case with those secret CIA jails. I saw a Google Earth picture of one of those in The Washington Post, I think.

Actually doing what is described would involve making Google overlays out of current satellite images or aerial photos, which would either involve major purchases that no one would approve from the companies or governments holding the satellite imagery, or else using planes to take aerial photographs—and then the big story would not be that Google Earth was used by Al Qaeda, but that Al Qaeda had recognizance planes up in the sky taking pictures of our positions.  Google Earth just makes viewing the pictures a little easier once you've got them; despite the Washington Post's claim to the contrary, it is not an omniscient Eye in the Sky.

I had a look at how the phrase fared on Blogpulse:


What happened right before our phrase makes it onto the chart? Hint: That was the peak of the buzz surrounding the CIA's secret jails. So, um, who are we really, and what are these positions that people shouldn't be looking at? Hmm?

Now Google Earth is a very useful tool, and it would stand to reason that underground organizations would find it just as useful as I do. What I don't understand is why real journalists who are paid to do this sort of thing can't be bothered to get some real evidence before putting this claim in their articles. Perhaps they might also want to write about the grandmother of a friend of my friend who was in a bit of a hurry and so tried to dry her poodle in the microwave . . . And did you know that Al Qaeda is now using these exploding poodles in Iraq?

My suspicion is that what we have here is a piece of high-grade astroturf, which is to say an honest-to-God work of propaganda. (I thought they weren't supposed to write propaganda for the domestic market. I thought that was supposed to be illegal.)

MEANWHILE, Wired reports that the CDC is looking into using computer gaming as a way to better train people how to respond in case of an avian flu pandemic. (Via Declan Butler.)

P.S.: The book is by Philip K. Dick, copyright 1957. So the concept of the Eye in the Sky  isn't merely phildickian. It's Phil Dick's.