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Of GPS, GIS, guns and grenades

Dr. Hrishikesh Samant
Sr. Associate Editor (Honorary), GIS Development
[email protected]

Aday after the Mumbai attacks (26th November), I risked travelling to my college that’s right in the middle of the locations targeted by the trigger-happy terrorists. The sparse traffic, deserted roads and gloom spoke louder than the usual 8.00 am cacophony of one of the busiest places in Mumbai – the CS Terminus, a railway station used by more than eight hundred thousand commuters every day.

Walking past the cordoned off patches where three officers of the Mumbai Police lost their lives in a gun battle with terrorists the previous night, was numbing. About 200 people lost their lives in the operation that lasted for 60 hours. The impact of rapidly advancing and easily available geospatial technology on national security was evident in these terrorist attacks. The GPS used by the perpetrators to reach Mumbai via a sea route and the apparent ease with which they moved around the city through the lesser known back alleys, points to a prior training on the use of easily accessible satellite imageries and a PND. This has restarted the unfortunate bureaucratic thought process of banning PNDs or worst still, access to services like Google Maps and GPS. If Egypt, Syria and North Korea can do it, why not India? In the aftermath of the attacks, a ‘concerned’ legal beagle has filed a ‘Public Interest Litigation (PIL)’ in the Bombay High Court seeking ‘complete ban’ on ‘Google Earth and similar sites like Wikimapia’. The advocate, in his PIL, said, “the premium edition with a subscription of US $400 allowed even real time maps and updates to be accessed.” Well, we surely wish it was so, as real time data (if such a thing is presently possible) should also help us nab the perpetrators.

I would like to highlight one of the many instances that happened on the same fateful night. My mentor and colleague along with his family, managed to drive home safely just because he had access to map data, which helped them bypass the war zone. If the security camera systems that cover the CST railway station and perimeter had online face recognition as well as geotagging facilities, the exact route taken by the terrorists would have been known and many who are no more would have lived to tell the tale. The paranoia of some nations with regard to open access to spatial data is at the most an antiquated reminder of invasions suffered in the past and the resultant security concerns of the present rulers. In today’s context, the excessive zeal displayed towards gagging ‘geospatial freedom’ is anachronistic and at times, a knee-jerk reaction to unfortunate incidents like the one in Mumbai. The report on the crack down by China on ‘illegal online mapping

services’ is just another such happening. The length to which a country could go to is evident from Vincent Tao’s statement that, “…the map data is not allowed to leave the border. Some other countries also have the same regulations (Korea, for example). In China, maps can only be provided by licensed map data providers. Also, the online publishing maps need to go through a ‘encryption’ process whereby map coordinates are transformed to an unknown coordinate system (not in Lat/Long)…” Maps are any way not available outside the country and intentionally encrypting the coordinates of data used by the nation’s citizens almost amounts to providing false documents. Today, archived geospatial data by survey agencies of the USA, Russia and possibly UK for countries under their scanner and/or annexed/invaded/ ruled by them for some time in the past, is available. Should the use of such data also constitute a security violation by the citizens of the mapped country? Can a terrorist not gain access to such ‘archived’ data? I am sure that the breadcrumb trail from the confiscated GPS units will have its own value in ‘geospatial forensics’…