The aura around the iconic search engine should not stop us from asking why it should be exempt from the law of this country

While the spirit of The Hindu’s editorial on Google (“Wrong route,” April 29, 2013) is appreciable, it is based on a flawed perception.

Google’s power and usefulness are well-recognised. An entire generation reveres Google as the god of all information. This aura makes it harder to understand the company’s conduct. It has not only contemptuously ignored the queries raised by India’s Surveyor General, but also put out a version in the media portraying those objecting to its violations as Neanderthals.

The basic issues are these: is Google India expected to follow Indian law or not? If there is a violation that is glaring and which could compromise India’s military and nuclear secrets, should we raise an objection or not? Can Google India be above all other mapping agencies working in India just because of the cosmetic aura it has woven around itself or should it be subjected to the same rules and norms applicable to others?

Google’s sin against the Constitution and the law is this: it showed vital military installations, with annotations depicting the core of the Apsara nuclear reactor, blast pens inside the Hindon airbase, ammunition depots, markings of hangers meant for specific fighter jets as well as those jets visible outside in the high resolution images, warships in naval dockyards, and much more.

To make matters worse, defence systems and infrastructure were marked over a period of time. This sensitive data showing changes on a timeline can lead to a comprehensive and accurate/predictive analysis of our defence preparedness and planned responses to a situation.

As facilitator

One of the arguments by Google enthusiasts is that all this information can also be accessed on Google Earth. So what’s the big deal if Google provides it on its maps? The very basis of this argument is flawed. Satellite imagery available on Google Earth or through any other remote sensing satellites can only give a viewer a vague idea of structures and objects. But it needs a highly sophisticated mechanism to decipher these images and have them accurately marked for actionable intelligence. For example, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre complex is huge, with several residential and office buildings, and reactors. It is the specific marking of the Apsara reactor that makes it vulnerable to a swift and precise attack.

Recceing an area is the key to preparing for military or terrorist action. That’s exactly what David Headley did in Mumbai before 26/11. Google is facilitating, unintentionally, a digital recce by enemies.

The other serious aspect of Google’s conduct is its brazen refusal to adhere to Indian law.

Besides the government’s Survey of India there are more than a dozen national and international mapping agencies active in India including Nokia, TomTom, MapmyIndia, etc. All of them follow the prescribed law. Why should Google be an exception? The New Mapping Policy 2005 requires that all mapping data above 1:50 K collected by private agencies should be vetted by the Ministry of Defence. While every other agency does it, the query that Surveyor General of India Swarna Subba Rao raised was whether Google had submitted the data collected through its Mapathon or its continuous map-making process through crowd sourcing for vetting, as required by the law.

Surprisingly, Google has said everything except answer this specific query. If Blackberry could be forced to provide access to its BBM data, why shouldn’t Google be asked to do so? Let this incident trigger a debate on India’s mapping policy and the changes it needs but till a consensus is reached, the nation’s constitutional position and security concerns cannot be compromised.

(Tarun Vijay is Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha, and hon. director, Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, a centre for civilisational values and policy research.)

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