Intelligence: Silicon Time Machine


February 11, 2010: Google Earth has a been a boon for military intelligence, both professional and amateur. Now it provides some very useful assistance for military historians, and history buffs in general. That's because a lot of aerial photos of wartime Europe have recently been released. During World War II, there was a lot of aerial photography, and Google Earth has made these aerial photos available, to be viewed with contemporary satellite photos showing how some very bombed out urban areas have been rebuilt in the last 60 years. All this can be seen here

Meanwhile, over the last five years, Google Earth ( has revolutionized military intelligence, but the military doesn't like to admit it. By putting so much satellite photography at the disposal of so many people, in such an easy-to-use fashion, Google Earth has made much more information available to military professionals (and terrorists, and criminals and academics, etc), who quickly appreciated what a splendid new tool they had.

To the U.S. Department of Defense, Google Earth's major problem was not it's ease-of-use, but the manner in which it showcased the shortcomings of the American NGA (National Geospatial Intelligence Agency). The NGA is responsible for taking the satellite photos, spiffing them up as needed, and getting them to the troops. Trouble is, the stuff still isn't getting to the troops that need it, when they need it. This was made very obvious when Google Earth showed up, and demonstrated how you can get satellite images to anyone, when they need it, with minimal hassle. Many of the newly released World War II aerial photos have been held in classified archives since 1945, just in case they contained some secrets a potential enemy could use. Google Earth has done great damage to this attitude. Changing minds in the military intelligence community isn’t easy.

For over two decades, the generals, and other officers with access to "satellite imagery", have been complaining about the difficulty they have in getting their hands on this stuff. Hundreds of billions of dollars has been spent on photo satellites since the 1960s, and the troops always seem to get leftovers, if anything. Yet the satellite people regularly con Congress out of more money so they can build more satellites, and neat systems that will get the satellite imagery "to the troops." The goods never arrive, or never arrive in time. Generals gave angry testimony before Congress about this non-performance after the 1991 war. The satellite people seemed contrite, and said they would make it right. If given the money to do it. They got the money and the troops got nothing.

Then the troops got access to Google Earth, and have seen what they have been missing. To make matters worse, the software Google Earth uses to get the job done, was first developed for the NGA. But the way the NGA operates, you have to worry about security considerations, and all manner of bureaucratic details, before you can deploy a useful tool. The troops are fighting a war, you say? Well, we still have to deal with security and keeping the paperwork straight. But now the troops are beating NGA over the head with Google Earth, and Congress took notice. However, NGA bureaucrats are close at hand, and the angry troops are far away. Progress is still slow. But at least the troops have Google Earth, unfortunately, so does the enemy.



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