Though the Centre has received flak for its proposed Geospatial Bill, security experts and analysts tracking the mapping space say that even Google should be more sensitive to India’s security needs.

According to top officials in the government, several requests have been sent to Google in the last few years to block or mask areas of strategic and military importance on its mapping service to prevent any security threats arising from the ability to constantly monitor military bases free of cost from any country. Google, as per the officials, has not complied with even a single request so far.

The officials say one of the reasons why the controversial draft Geospatial Bill came into being was to force Google to comply with these requests, especially after terrorists were known to use Google maps to plan their attack on India’s military base in Pathankot.

‘Acting as an intermediary’

While Google refused to comment on the story, people within acknowledge that Google has never accepted any masking request from the Indian government even while it keeps getting them often. The reason they say is that Google only acts as an intermediary and it is up to the map providers to decide what is censored and what isn’t. The map providers think otherwise.

“We have been in the country for the last 10 years and whenever anyone places a request for a map, we sell them through the National Remote Sensing Centre, which then decides what parts of the map need to be masked. Globally, we sell maps to Google directly, which has full control over how it displays or masks certain areas on a map,” said Srinibas Patnaik, Director, Digital Globe India. Digital Globe is the world’s largest provider of satellite images to companies like Google. 

Patnaik added that there is no reason why Google should decline government requests for masking when it is fully aware of the security implications. 

To be clear, Google does not have sole access to these satellite images. Anyone can buy satellite images from companies like Digital Globe, which maps so detailed that you can even see individual persons on the street. What Google does, however, is make things accessible for even an unorganised terrorist group to plan an attack without getting into the hassles of buying or licensing satellite images. 

“If you try looking for sensitive US locations on Google maps, you wouldn’t be able to do so. Then how can Google say it cannot censor mapping images in India while it seems to be doing so in US,” asks Patnaik.

These appear to be clear double standards from a company who has often received direct endorsement from Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. Some say currently, the government does not provide a list of sensitive locations, which makes it difficult for a company like Google to censor any sensitive location.

Sensitive locations

“How can Google block sensitive locations on the map if Indian government doesn’t even share the list,” questioned Sanjay Kumar, president of the Association of Geospatial Industries, which counts Google among its 50 members in India.

What remains unanswered, however, is why would Google decline to censor images of a military base, when the request is coming from the official channels of the government and in cases through court orders? 

Is Google becoming hypocritical by ignoring India’s security requests while it apparently follows them in the US and China?

Some experts believe that India needs to go beyond sending requests to companies like Google to comply and instead have better discussions at government-to-government levels. 

“If the Indian government is able to convince US government to enforce this censorship of maps on all mapping providers in US, the problem can be solved at a larger level,” said Maneesh Prasad, CEO and Editor, Aeyzed Media Services, which publishes geospatial industry magazine Telematics Wire

Thing, however, could be more complicated than it seems. When US government itself is unable to get companies like Apple and Google to comply with their court orders, getting US government put restrictions on American companies would be more than just tricky for the Indian government. 

A law such as that proposed by the draft Geospatial Bill can have devastating affect on the entire industry while the aim seems to be as simple as getting Google to comply with government’s security concerns.