Report: JFK terror plotters used Google Earth

N.Y. court complaint claims that one of the four suspects recommended that they use Google Earth as a source for aerial photographs.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
2 min read

One of the four terror suspects in an alleged plot to blow up fuel tanks and a gas pipeline at New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport recommended Google Earth as a way to obtain detailed aerial photographs, according to a court complaint obtained by The Smoking Gun.

The "JFK plot" made headlines on Saturday when U.S. officials announced that they had charged four men, one of whom remains at large, in a nascent plot to target fuel tanks and a gas pipeline at the high-traffic airport. The court document in question describes a May 11 meeting in Guyana, in which one of the four defendants, Abdul Kadir, said that the surveillance video they had "was not sufficiently detailed for operational purposes, and told them to use Google Earth software to get more detailed pictures of JFK after they returned to New York."

According to a statement from Google on Monday, the search and information giant has "paid close attention to concerns that Google Earth creates new security risks." Additionally, it's willing to be cooperative. "Google takes security concerns very seriously, and is always willing to discuss them with public agencies and officials. Our experience is that security concerns can best be addressed through dialog with the relevant governmental experts." The statement then cited U.S. government studies that determined that the benefits of making imaging data (like the images found on Google Earth) publicly available outweigh the risks, and that the government can likewise limit availability if it chooses to.

The Google statement pointed out that while Google Earth might be one of the most popular and accessible sources of detailed aerial views, it's by no means the only one. "The imagery visible on Google Earth and Google Maps is not unique: commercial high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery of every country in the world is widely available from numerous sources," the release read. "Indeed, anyone who flies above or drives by a piece of property can obtain similar information. Accordingly, we expect security concerns to be addressed primarily by the companies and governmental agencies that gather and distribute the images."

That's true, but Google Earth and other online satellite mapping databases certainly do make it easier for a would-be terrorist to obtain such maps anonymously. Prior to the availability of services like Google Earth, it would've been tough to get your hands on satellite imagery without asking for it--and potentially drawing attention to yourself if you were asking for aerial views of something like an airport.