UK Military Forces Google to Remove Street View Images

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

The UK government has forced Google to remove images from Street View which breached the Official Secrets Act, according to media reports

Google is once again in hot water over its controversial Street View service, after media reports at the weekend said that the British government has asked it to remove certain images because they breached the Official Secrets Act.

The report, in the Mail on Sunday, said that some of the locations could be useful to terrorists or hostile foreign governments. Indeed, some of the locations were deemed to be so secret, the British media is not allowed to report what they are or where they are located.

Google Branded “Irresponsible”

Last week Google faced fierce criticism after it emerged that its Street View service included images of the headquarters of the British Special Air Services Regiment (the SAS). Images of the base and its entrance, have never appeared before on maps for security reasons because of fears that it could be used for terrorist planning purposes.

The Google images of the SAS base were reportedly marked as “British SAS” on the website, and a detailed 180 degree view of the perimeter boundary was also included. The images also showed a military ambulance and a police car at the gates of the base, along with three guards.

“Military chiefs have had concerns with Google Street View for some time,” a military source told the Daily Telegraph last week. “It is highly irresponsible for military bases, especially special forces, to be pictured on the internet.

But this it seems is just the tip of the iceberg. On 11 March Google expanded its Street View coverage to include 96 percent of all British roads, but in the process unfortunately also included photos of a number of secret Government installations. This included the Government atomic weapons research centre, the vehicle entrance into Thames House (the MI5 headquarters in Westminster), as well as Hanslope Park near Milton Keynes, which is home to MI6 officers who analyse data from GCHQ.

Another image also showed the outside of the headquarters of the British Special Boat Squadron (SBS). Somewhat ironically, that picture clearly shows a warning sign on the fence, that reads, “Prohibited place within the meaning of the Official Secrets Act. Loitering, photography, sketching forbidden.”

This meant that anyone caught taking pictures of the site, could face charges under the Official Secrets Act.

While Google has not officially admitted that it has removed certain images, it did say it would act quickly to remove images where it is prohibited by law to do so.

‘If mistakes are made we will remove the images. We’re unaware of any official concerns about security, but are happy to discuss any issues as they arise,’ the firm reportedly said.

“Google Street View is made up of images from public roads so it’s to be expected that buildings that anyone can see walking down the street may appear, ” the firm added. “We’re unaware of any official concerns being raised about security, but are of course happy to discuss any issues as they arise.”

This is not the first time that Google has inadvertently revealed sensitive Government locations. A few years back, Google Earth displayed highly detailed images of the French fleet at rest in its naval base in Toulon, as well as a number of AWACS aircraft at the Avord air base in France.

And of course Google’s Street View service has been subject to an increasing a number of privacy complaints of late.

The battle of Broughton

For example, in April last year, villagers in Broughton in Buckinghamshire formed a human chain to prevent a car shooting images for Street View from driving down the London Road – a cul-de-sac in the village near Milton Keynes. “They felt his presence was an intrusion of their privacy,” the Thames Valley Police told The Associated Press.