Security Officials Seek to Block Some Online Maps

With Google Earth and GPS, people have grown accustomed to online maps of whatever they're searching for. But the boom in digital mapping has run into an obstacle. Some government officials are refusing to release electronic maps of what they call "critical infrastructure," such as water mains and fire hydrants.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's talk about the safety of the gas that does get up out of the ground. A Washington State Appeals Court recently ruled that natural gas companies do not have to release detailed maps of their pipeline networks. The judges said terrorists might find that information useful.

This is the latest in a series of battles over maps of critical infrastructure. Security-minded officials are trying to take a stand against technologies like Google Earth, which is worth looking up if you've never seen it.

They display the world in new ways on the Internet, as NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES: Finding Steven Whitaker was easy.

(Soundbite of GPS)

Unidentified Woman: Turn right on Arc Street. Then turn left.

CHARLES: I have that one those fancy GPS guidance devices in my rental car. It showed the streets of Greenwich, Connecticut - also libraries, restaurants and eventually the stately building where Whitaker was waiting.

(Soundbite of GPS)

Unidentified Woman: Arriving at Greenwich Town Hall on right.

CHARLES: Not that Steven Whitaker likes town hall. He has been fighting it for the last seven years. The fight is over an electronic map - like the one that brought me here, but much more sophisticated. Like many cities, Greenwich has created a geographic information system - a map that shows all the hidden bones and arteries of modern civilization: water mains, storm sewers, utility lines. And Whitaker, a computer consultant and community activist, wants a copy of it.

Mr. STEPHEN WHITAKER (Community Activist): Oh, it's amazing technology, way too powerful to have (unintelligible) as a restricted information product that the public can no longer use.

CHARLES: Computers let you examine the landscape in ways that paper maps do not, Whitaker says. You can ask it for the information you need.

Mr. WHITAKER: You could do a query to identify all parcels with a particular zoning designation within so many feet of three-phase electrical power and so many feet of a water line, and the three properties left to put your business or your school would light up.

CHARLES: But when Whitaker requested this data from Greenwich and from the neighboring town of Stanford, city and state officials said no.

Mr. RAYMOND PHILBRICK (Department of Public Works, Connecticut): The reality is we are in a state of war in this country.

CHARLES: Raymond Philbrick, director of safety and security for Connecticut's Department of Public Works, told the state's Freedom Of Information Commission in February that some parts of the map could aid terrorists. They show, for example, which manholes lead into storm sewers, some of which are big enough for a person to crawl through.

Mr. PHILBRICK: You might be able to ascertain by going through the sewer pipe at this location, end up directly below a prime target - whether it's a train station or a municipal building or a school or a hospital, you know, something like that.

(Soundbite of moving train)

CHARLES: Whitaker doesn't think this argument makes much sense. He leads the way to the Greenwich train station to a platform that overlooks a major intersection. We can see a dozen manholes in the street, all clearly labeled.

Mr. WHITAKER: See this one? It says sewer on it. Some of them say storm. Some of them say sewer.

CHARLES: And they're not allowed to be shown on your database?

Mr. WHITAKER: Right. But yet you can see them standing here on the train platform.

CHARLES: So terrorists don't really need the maps, Whitaker says. But law-abiding citizens do, whether it's to check on whether the town has an adequate sewer system or to identify the best places to build. Government officials who try to keep such information to themselves are really after something else, he says - power.

Mr. WHITAKER: Power is accumulated by maintaining secretive control of essential information. That's why our public records laws were written. It discourages the abuse of power by public officials.

CHARLES: But the state's Freedom of Information Commission rejected Whitaker's appeal. He will get a map without sewer and water systems, fire hydrants, and manholes.

Sean Gorman, CEO of a mapping company called FortiusOne in Arlington, Virginia has followed similar debates across the country. He says the flood of geographic information these days may simply overwhelm attempts to control it.

Mr. SEAN GORMAN (CEO, FortiusOne): And trying to lock down this information now that it grows and expands I think is one of these Sisyphean tasks where we're never going to get there and we're going to really frustrate ourselves.

CHARLES: There are no national guidelines on which maps deserve protection, so local governments are making their own decisions. Some publish their maps on the Internet, while others, like Greenwich, keep them under lock and key.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.