Consumer Watchdog asks FBI, DEA to explain use of Google Earth

Mon, Aug 9, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Consumer Watchdog asks FBI, DEA to explain use of Google Earth

    Is Internet Giant’s Technology Being Used to Spy On Americans?

    WASHINGTON, D.C. — The FBI and DEA are now making extensive use of Google Earth, according to federal spending records. Consumer Watchdog is filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the agencies today to determine how the Internet giant’s digital mapping technology is being used for domestic surveillance, including whether it is used for racial profiling or other abuses of civil liberties.

    “The public needs to know how law enforcement is using Google’s technologies,” said John M. Simpson, consumer advocate with the nonpartisan, nonprofit group. “We call on the FBI and the DEA to expeditiously respond to our requests for information.”

    Congress should also investigate how the U.S. law enforcement and intelligence communities are using technologies that Google provides, Simpson added.

    Federal contracting records reviewed by Consumer Watchdog show that the FBI has spent more than $600,000 on Google Earth since 2007. The Drug Enforcement Administration, meanwhile, has spent more than $67,000.

    The DEA’s contracting records say that Google Earth is being used in connection with the agency’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which targets specific geographic domestic regions of the United States.

    The FBI has not disclosed exactly how it is using Google Earth. However, the FBI’s Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide encourages agents to use digital mapping technologies like Google Earth for assembling dossiers on local communities.

    “As a general rule, if information about community demographics may be collected, it may be ‘mapped,’ ” the Manual states. “Sophisticated computer geo-mapping technology visually depicts lawfully collected information and can assist in showing relationships among disparate data.”

    If the FBI merges ethnic data it has gathered onto Google Earth maps, it raises the possibility of unfair racial profiling.

    Google Earth provides users with satellite-produced geographic images on a delayed basis and therefore cannot be used for real-time surveillance. However, the detailed information it provides can be used by police and intelligence agencies to analyze homes and communities in unprecedented ways.

    On May 5 of this year, records identified by Consumer Watchdog show, the FBI awarded a $320,999.61 contract to DLT Solutions Inc. for five perpetual licenses of “Google Earth Fusion Pro with imagery, terrain and vector support,” along with 12 months of tech support and two computer processors.

    The deal was the largest yet for Google Earth by the FBI, which is mainly investing in Google’s Fusion product. That allows organizations which already possess their own data to input this information into Google Earth and display it in geospatial form.

    Meanwhile, a national poll released by Consumer Watchdog found that a significant majority of Americans are troubled by recent revelations  that Google’s Street View cars gathered communications from home WiFi  networks, and they want stronger legal protection to preserve their  online privacy.

    Nearly two-thirds  of those polled (65%) say the Wi-Spy scandal is one of the things that  “worries them most” or a “great deal” with another 20% saying it “raises  some concern” when considering Internet issues.

    The poll, conducted for Consumer Watchdog by Grove Insight, Ltd., found a  solid majority (55%) is also bothered (“one of the most” or “great  deal”) by Google’s cooperation with the National Security Agency without  saying what information is being shared. Even more voters call for  Congressional hearings on “Google’s gathering data from home WiFi  networks and its sharing of information with U.S. spy agencies like the National Security Administration, the NSA” (69% favor, 19% oppose)

    – Read Grove Ltd.’s poll analysis here:

    – Read the poll’s topline results here:

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    Consumer Watchdog, formerly the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights is a nonprofit, nonpartisan consumer advocacy organization with offices in Washington, DC and Santa Monica, Ca.  Consumer Watchdog’s website is Visit our new Google Privacy and Accountability Project website:

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