Town Seeks to Keep Secret Maps, Images
Officials in the town of Greenwich, Connecticut are compiling a list of vulnerable public buildings and utilities and plan to withhold aerial images and maps of these sites from the public, despite having been ordered by the Connecticut Supreme Court to disclose them. Mapping information has been a continual target for proponents of increased government secrecy, even though little evidence supports their claims that such information is too dangerous to remain public.A Greenwich computer consultant, Stephen Whitaker, requested access to the town's recently compiled geographic information system (GIS), which contained digital maps and aerial photos of the community. The town denied the request claiming that the information could be misused by terrorists and criminals. Whitaker fought the town's decision all the way to the state's highest court. On June 15, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the town had no evidence supporting its claim that disclosure of the images represented an immediate danger to the community. Greenwich officials were ordered to grant Whitaker full access to the computer files.
However, a month after the court decision town officials requested the state intervene and limit public access to the town's GIS files. A Connecticut law passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks granted the Public Works Commissioner the power to restrict public access to information that risks harm to any person. The agency is currently investigating the situation; however, whether the new law is even applicable in the case is unclear, as Whitaker's request predates it.
Mapping and GIS data is among the first information held up by proponents of greater government secrecy as examples of the types of information that must be withheld from the public in order prevent terrorists from using it. For instance, a previous OMB Watcher article revealed that the Department of Homeland Security had accepted a New Jersey municipal utilities' GIS database of property parcels into a program designed to restrict information. However, municipal property parcels data collected for property tax assessments seem a far cry from the critical infrastructure information the program was established to protect. It appears that the utility simply did not want to supply the information without charging for the service.
While little research has been done in this area, at least one study supports the court ruling to allow access to the GIS files. According to a 2004 RAND Corporation report, efforts to remove information from government websites after the 9/11 attacks, especially maps and imagery information, were unnecessary and unproductive in protecting against terrorism. The report, "Mapping the Risks: Assessing the Homeland Security Implications of Publicly Available Geospatial Information," found that the data was simply not detailed or current enough to be significantly useful to terrorist purposes. The report also determined that terrorists could acquire better information from direct observation or other public sources including textbooks, trade journals, street maps and non-governmental websites. Therefore the removal of the information from government websites was pointless.