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 applications that have made it a worldwide phenomenon.
Some of that collateral damage is now landing on the heads of British soldiers in Iraq as insurgents are reportedly using images gleaned from Google Earth to pinpoint mortar and rocket attacks against the most vulnerable targets inside military bases.
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.
Take this extract, from a report on Telegraph.co.uk:
"Documents seized during raids on the homes of insurgents last week uncovered print-outs from photographs taken from Google. The satellite photographs show in detail the buildings inside the bases and vulnerable areas such as tented accommodation, lavatory blocks and where lightly armored Land Rovers are parked.
"Written on the back of one set of photographs taken of the Shatt al Arab Hotel, headquarters for the 1,000 men of the Staffordshire Regiment battle group, officers found the camp's precise longitude and latitude.
"'This is evidence as far as we are concerned for planning terrorist attacks,' said an intelligence officer with the Royal Green Jackets battle group. Who would otherwise have Google Earth imagery of one of our bases? We are concerned that they use them to plan attacks. We have never had proof that they have deliberately targeted any area of the camp using these images but presumably they are of great use to them.'"
Google's reply was to acknowledge that Google Earth can be used for "good and bad", as well as to pledge an open mind regarding the situation:
"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. "But we do listen and we are sensitive to requests."
Not sure that answer would comfort me if I'm a soldier eating breakfast in Basra with only a tent/bullseye 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 products.
Google Earth and Google Maps do have the ability to "pixel out" specific locations – US vice president Dick 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 organisation, 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 did explain its reasoning.
There's nothing petty about the Google-enabled targeting of soldiers... and Google should at least step up and fully explain it's thinking about such matters.