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Google Earth prompts security fears

Security analysts say satellite imagery should be censored.
Security analysts say satellite imagery of sensitive sites in Australia, such as the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor, should be censored.

The operators of Australia's nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights are calling on the heads of the Internet search engine Google to censor its publication of photographs of the site, warning that the images could be used by terrorists.

The photos published on an Internet site would have been available only to a handful of government agencies and NASA until recently.

But now satellite photography is easily accessible online, with a new search engine program giving up more information than some people would like.

Through the Google Earth service you can see your suburb, in some cases your house, maybe even your car parked in the street outside.

The program also gives a clear aerial view of Australia's only nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney, showing the reactor in the centre of the site with large, white pipes leading from it to other buildings.

Details such as cars, trees and perimeter fencing can also been seen.

The facility's operator, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), wants Google to review the reactor's image.

ANSTO chief of operations Dr Ron Cameron says it is prudent to take steps to ensure the best possible security at the site.

"As you drive past our site you can see a lot of these buildings but what we want to just see are there any opportunities to make sure the exact details of buildings and services are not as distinct as they might be," he said.

He says ANSTO has asked Google if there is an opportunity to blur the image of the reactor.

Military sites

Security analysts say Lucas Heights is not the only sensitive Australian site at risk.

Intelligent Risks CEO Neil Fergus says Google Earth offers serious security problems for military sites.

"For argument's sake Garden Island can be photographed from the water but to have an aerial image with high definition, really it might be of some prurient interest to some people but it could be of real tactical and logistical interest to a terrorist group, so I would argue that it should be excluded from that site," he said.

Any censoring of an Australian site on Google Earth would be unprecedented, but there are critical sites censored overseas.

Google Earth colours over the rooftop of the Whitehouse and several other Washington buildings.

Mr Fergus says there is only marginal public interest in making satellite imagery of critical sites available.

"We really should ensure that there is as much available as is reasonable to the public and to other parties, including architects and engineers, but be mindful of those particular sites and they are only very few in number that really the public interest isn't particularly served by having a high resolution satellite imagery available on the web," he said.

"So for example Lucas Heights, military facilities such as the new Australian Defence Force operations centre that's being constructed outside of Canberra, or Garden Island or indeed the Special Air Services regiment base at Swanbourne. There's no compelling reason why these should be included on this site."

There is no restricted air zone over Lucas Heights, but Mr Fergus says air traffic control would question any suspicious aircraft over the area.

'Not a threat'

The Federal Government is downplaying any possible threat offered by the Google Earth program.

A spokeswoman for Federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock says ASIO constantly monitors the Internet for security threats and it does not regard Google Earth as one at this stage.

Google says its imagery is already publicly available, is not in real-time and in some cases are photos that are about two years old.

A spokesman says Google's technology can be used for emergency responses such as fighting bushfires so he says the benefits of the program have to be balanced against any negatives from potential abuse.

But even as this technology is being taken up a new, more powerful one is on the horizon.

An Australian company Astrovision Australia plans to offer real-time satellite imagery over the Internet by 2008.

However, the company says high definition imagery, which may be of security concern, will not be available until at least the year 2015.

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The operators of Australia's nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights are today calling on the Federal Government to ban the publication of photographs of the site, warning that the images could be used by terrorists.

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