Friday, December 26, 2003

The White House is missing
This is over a week old, but it’s too fun to pass over.
Call it the case of the missing White House. Users of Mapquest's free aerial photo database recently noticed that details of several Washington D.C. government buildings were no longer discernable in overhead images of the U.S. capital.

A comparison of old and new images posted on the government secrecy watchdog site Cryptome shows that portions of overhead color photos of the Capitol building and the grounds of the Naval Observatory, where the Vice President's residence is located, have been distorted -- pixilated into an digital blur.

The White House and the adjacent Old Executive Office Building and Treasury Department headquarters were subject to more subtle tampering: the buildings are still sharp, but the roofs have been digitally painted over with featureless solid colors seeming picked from the surrounding landscape. The lot at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue now resembles a White House-shaped dirt field more than the seat of executive power.

Kevin Poulsen of SecurityFocus followed the trail from Mapquest to EarthData International of Maryland, the company that processes the aerial photos under contract with the U.S. Geological Survey. According to the USGS, the digital airbrushing was done at the request of the Secret Service in exchange for permission to fly in restricted Washington, DC airspace. “Analyst John Pescatore, a former Secret Service agent, says the image distortions could be a response to real, if unlikely, attack scenarios: like a homemade drone aircraft armed with explosives, remotely piloted by a terrorist using aerial photographs as a navigation aid.”

There is a great comedy routine in this. There are hundreds—probably thousands—of good road maps, street maps, satellite photos, and aerial photos of Washington, DC available to tourists and terrorists. Many of these views are available from the DC department of tourism and the White House itself. Picture a wild-eyed terrorist having just launched a remote control, balsa-wood V1 armed with a generic Iraqi WMD. He’s hunched over the controls staring at the flickering image broadcast from the V1’s nose camera. His regularly dart to the MapQuest photos at his side. Photos that are necessary for this mission. Photos that he has not even casually glanced at before this moment. The V1 follows the street grid as he counts down the addresses to his target, “1900 Pennsylvania Avenue, 1800, 1700, big cow pasture, 1500… What wizardry is this?!!”

I know there is something to be said for not making a potential terrorist’s job too easy, but surely there are more effective uses of the Secret Service’s time than this.

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