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The All-Seeing Eye in the Sky

SOME HIGH-PROFILE or high-risk companies now worry about having strangers take photographs of their buildings for fear they might be criminals or terrorists surveilling the property. The real threat, however, may be from above—from the eyes in the sky.

Once available only to government customers, satellite images now give anyone a way to get a bird’s-eye view of any property. That means anyone with a computer and access to the Internet can case a target and collect volumes of useful data by accessing high-quality—and free—satellite images.

A host of companies offer increasingly sophisticated mapping and satellite imagery functions, and they are aggressively spreading the word. For example, many vendors recently gathered to show their surveillance wares at the Where 2.0 Conference held by O’Reilly Media.

One major player is Google Earth, a tool that allows a user to zoom in on a street, neighborhood, or building, and tilt and rotate the view for a 3D look at terrain and buildings. Another is Microsoft’s MSN Virtual Earth, which offers high-resolution 45-degree views of buildings., a subsidiary of online bookstore Amazon, demonstrated at the conference how its search capability joins a street map of a business with photos taken along the street in front of, and across from, that business. The site has taken more than 20 million of these “block view” photos in more than ten U.S. cities, including New York, San Francisco, and Boston.

Different types of aerial imagery are freely available through other search engines as well, though not all of the images are current.

So what does the public availability of these images mean for security professionals?

Security directors need to recognize that the information is out there and think about how to use it to their advantage or how to defend against it. For example, they can use these services to see what outsiders would see and find ways to reduce the exposure.

“Satellite imagery is useful to industrial espionage efforts,” explains Kevin D. Murray, CPP, of Murray Associates, a firm specializing in eavesdropping detection and counterespionage. “With this in mind, it would be wise to design facilities so that their purpose, competitive advantages, and output potential will be disguised from aerial photography.”

He adds that keeping abreast of what’s posted online about the company should be a central aspect of security’s job. Security teams should have a program in place to regularly monitor the Internet, not only for postings of aerial photos of their locations, but also for things such as vendors discussing newly installed security systems, activist groups complaining about the company, personal information about top executives, and other bits of intelligence that could be used to harm the company, Murray says.

This type of satellite imagery is potentially of great use to security personnel, agrees Joe N. Smith, manager, security services, with the Salt River Project, an Arizona-based water and power company. “The investigators who work for me see these types of sites as another tool for them to use in the various types of investigations in which they are involved,” he says.

Would it be better if the information weren’t available? Sure, says Smith. “We would all like to keep information about our respective businesses as confidential as possible in the hopes that the less anyone else knows about our business, the better as far as security goes.” However, he admits “it’s a fact of life that the Internet is here to stay along with all that information that it has to give away or sell.”