Google Maps’ contest ‘Mapathon 2013’ worries defence establishment


Google-Maps-contestThe Indian security establishment is up in arms over ‘Mapathon 2013’, a public competition organised by Google India to update its internet maps, holding that such “unauthorized” endeavours could have serious repercussions for national security.

Sources said the Survey of India, the national survey and mapping organisation, has asked the ministries of defence, home affairs and science & technology to take “suitable action” to prevent illegal mapping activities like Mapathon 2013 because they are “likely to compromise national security interests”.

Freely available satellite imagery and mapping facilities like Google Earth and Google Maps have often run afoul of military establishments around the world, with governments many a time getting the service provider to blur or blank out images of sensitive sites and installations.

Similar has been the case in India, with the government getting some high-resolution satellite images of Rashtrapati Bhavan and Parliament, South and North Blocks, vital nuclear and military installations masked in the past.

Mapathon, billed as the “first-ever” mapping competition organized in India by Google Maps from February 12 to March 25, is the latest provocation in that continuing tug-of-war. A crowd-sourcing initiative, Google promised Android tablets, smart-phones and the like to the top 1,000 mappers who would add details and help improve its maps.

But on behalf of the Surveyor General of India Swarna Subba Rao, his deputy major general R C Padhi told the three ministries that Mapathon was “not in accordance with the national Mapping Policy 2005 and map restriction policies issued by the defence ministry from time to time”, sources said.

Added a senior defence officer, “Such activities can have serious security repercussions in case mapping of restricted areas is undertaken by members of the general public.”

But Google pooh-poohed all this. “Mapathon is a user-initiative to map new destinations and areas of public interest. It generated a huge response. We mapped 82,000 restaurants, 42,000 places of worship and 32,000 health centres and hospitals,” an executive said.

“We have no intent or desire to compromise national security. We steer clear of all sensitive installations. All our mapping activities follow guidelines and applicable laws,” she added.

Not all, however, are convinced. BJP MP Tarun Vijay, for one, has asked the government to book Google for “violating” India’s defence regulations on maps by “illegally” inviting people to map the country and send data to its US-based servers.

Others pointed out that countries like the US have banned Google from taking pictures and making detailed “street-view” maps of its military and other important sites. “While we do take steps to protect our airbases and other installations from satellite and thermal imagery, such activities like the Mapathon need to be regulated,” an IAF officer said.