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Google's Mapathon 'threatens security'

Online giant's data-gathering competition is viewed as a 'grave danger', posing a threat to security and 'a challenge to the Indian state'. Samanth Subramanian reports

NEW DELHI // It is not every day that a company promotion falls foul of the law. Then again, when the promotion involves maps in a country where map-making is primarily the preserve of the state, it probably should not have come as any surprise.

That's what Google India discovered when it ran a contest to get users to map addresses, buildings and other places of interest in the country. Those 1,000 Indians who added the most edits to Google Maps from February 12 to March 25 were promised tablets, phones, shopping coupons and T-shirts.

But a complaint last month by Tarun Vijay, a member of parliament from the Bharatiya Janata Party, alleged that Mapathon 2013 "presents a grave danger to security and poses a challenge to the Indian state".

Mr Vijay contended that Google had breached India's National Map Policy by allowing users to potentially pinpoint sensitive civil and military areas on Google Maps. This month he told reporters that the information on Google Maps could be an "intelligence asset" and that the activity was "shocking".

Mr Vijay said he "planned to raise the issue of India's mapping policy, the relevant laws" and Google's breaches in the next sitting of parliament, which is today.

The Survey of India, the official government body responsible for mapping the country, has written to Google and lodged a police complaint, noting in the complaint that Mapathon "is likely to jeopardise national security interest". A deputy police commissioner told Reuters earlier this month that the complaint had been forwarded to the cybercrimes unit for investigation.

Google India said that it had responded to the Survey of India's communication and that it was willing "to meet them to discuss their concerns".

"Relevant Indian authorities, including the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Surveyor General of India, have been briefed on Map Maker, which complies with all applicable laws," Google India said.

Although India's national map policy was codified only in 2005, its rules about cartography have long been stringent, a holdover from a time when the government was the only agency with the technical ability to collect and distribute geographical data.

Mapping in India comes with many restrictions. Nobody other than the government can map the coast, the area around international borders and the north-east states, as well as the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Aerial photography is barred and showing the location of civilian airports on a map must be authorised by the defence ministry. The buildings of parliament and various ministries, naval dockyards and airbases are deemed vital and can only be mapped by the Survey of India.

As the Free Press Journal, a Mumbai-based publication, pointed out in a report, even a person with a hand-drawn map of a road through Delhi's militarised cantonment area "can be hauled up under the Official Secrets Act".

But technological advances have made these policies appear anachronistic. As early as 2003, well before Google Maps was born, a researcher said in the Indian Cartographer journal: "High-resolution spy satellites are monitoring each and every minute activity of the country and there is little left to hide."

Satellite images that were freely available online were far more detailed than Survey of India maps. "And the advent of technology like Google Maps has only further shown up the inefficacy of the mapping policy," said Pavan Duggal, a New Delhi-based expert in cyber law. "There is now a real need to revisit the law."

Mr Duggal acknowledged that sovereign nations held the right to map their territories and their borders in their security interests. "But technology doesn't always wait for sovereign nations to chart their territories."

Although Mapathon 2013 did not involve demarcating international boundaries in any way, Mr Duggal said that even identifying locations that are already in the public domain may be considered problematic.

"This kind of information - say the address of a politician or the location of parliament - may be out there on the internet, but it is there in a scattered way. On Google Maps, you are collating it and putting it out there on a platter," he said. "So if an attack is carried out using this information, then the service provider can also be held liable."

The potential punishments in such cases, he noted, included a fine of up to 50 million rupees (Dh3.4m) for every offence and prison terms ranging from three years to life.

Sanyam Jain, 31, a graphic designer in New Delhi, is an amateur mapper on Google Maps and has been assigned the status of "moderator" on Google Map Maker. So seriously does he take his avocation that he carries packs of Post-it notes everywhere to jot down names of streets or businesses, so that he can fill them in later on Google Maps.

"The law, as it stands, is very difficult to implement," Mr Jain said. "For starters, Google isn't the only service that provides open-source mapping capabilities. There are so many other platforms out there. Google is only targeted because it is the most popular."

Mr Jain also sees it as a contradiction that locations indicated on Survey of India maps are not allowed to be transplanted on to other mapping services.

"Frankly, till recently, I didn't even think about the legal aspect of mapping," Mr Jain said. "After all, we're only doing this to improve the maps for the benefit of the community at large."

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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