After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many federal agencies began to restrict public access to some geospatial information accessible from the Internet for fear the data could be used to help target domestic sites for strikes. Government leaders needn’t worry, according to a recently released study.
Terrorists looking to cull information to identify targets from federal government Web sites and Internet-accessible databases that contain geospatial data won’t generally find the details they’d need to achieve their objectives, according to a study conducted by think tank Rand Corp.
A study estimates that less than 1% of publicly available government-housed geospatial data–which shows location and describes important attributes of certain locales from digitized maps, nautical charts, and aerial and satellite images–accessible over the Internet could help terrorists and other hostile forces mount attacks in the United States. Only four federal databases identified by Rand contained geospatial data that could aid terrorists, and they’re no longer available to the public through the Internet.
The study, conducted at the request of the government’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, notes that though these federal databases could potentially help terrorists identify U.S. targets, attackers most likely would need more detailed and current information that can be acquired by direct observation or other sources, including textbooks, nongovernment Web sites, trade journals, and street maps.
Rand recommends that the federal government work with state and local governments, as well as business and academia, to develop a consistent and uniform analytical process that could be used to evaluate the benefits and risks associated with publicly available geospatial information. Decision makers need to use an analytical process to identify sensitive geospatial information because a one-size-fits-all set of guidelines isn’t likely to work, says John Baker, a Rand technology policy analyst and lead author of the report, titled Mapping the Risks.
Rand urges the government to develop a more formal and comprehensive model that can assess the homeland security implications of geospatial information within the desired protection levels for U.S. critical infrastructure facilities and installations.
Giving the public access to vast amounts of federal geospatial data has many benefits, Rand says, citing information used to aid law-enforcement agencies, advance scientific knowledge, inform people about environmental risks, help communities prepare for and respond to natural disasters and other emergencies, create more accurate maps, assist economic development efforts, and help a wide array of government agencies do their jobs more effectively. In addition, such geospatial information is used to help protect, operate, and manage various U.S. critical sites..
Rand researchers reviewed a cross-section of geospatial information about critical sites, including more than 5,000 federal Web pages, and identified 465 federal programs and major initiatives providing publicly available geospatial information. They closely studied 629 federal databases identified as being likely to contain geospatial information about U.S. critical sites, such as power plants, chemical plants, military installations, dams, and public spaces like national monuments. Researchers also examined information from more than 2,000 Web pages to identify more than 300 nonfederal sources that included private, academic, state and local government, and foreign sources.