Google Earth: From Security Threat to International Asset

When Google unveiled its innovative, if voyeuristic, satellite photo tool to the computer-loving public, it was revolutionary, it was compelling, it was intriguing, it was… a major threat against national security. But now that the world has either forgotten or simply resigned itself to (depending on who you ask) the Google Earth security threat, the application has become a vital new tool around the world.

When people started exploring Google’s geographical software upon its release in 2005, it was primarily a novelty tool that allowed you to view satellite images of your favorite locales. But by 2007, major reservations were being voiced about how Google Earth could become a valuable asset to terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda. American intelligence admitted that Google Earth’s commercial imagery could be used to help combat troops. But word had also circulated about how the Islamic Army in Iraq had been teaching its followers how to target American military targets using Google Earth. According to other press reports, Google Earth was also used to plot an unsuccessful 2006 Yemeni oil facility bombing while Google Earth images have been found in Al Qaeda safe houses. When asked by Reuters about Google Earth as a security threat in 2007, U.S. Air Force intelligence head Lt. Gen. David Deptula said “It is huge. It was something that was a closely guarded secret not that long ago and now everybody’s got access to it.”


While the New York Times reported that the Pakistani military was using Google Earth to locate specific targets, civilians are finding new uses for Google Earth. In the past couple of years, Google Earth has launched a number of important extensions of the application. One allowed users to view a live hectare ticker indicating the rate of deforestation all over the planet. In another, Google Earth partnered with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to show in great detail the scope of the destruction in Darfur. The “Crisis in Darfur” layer even offers before and after images of roughly 200 locations that were ravaged by the war. While Google Earth has become a more important social tool, it’s also made surveillance more accessible to everyday people.

Last month, Google Earth helped retrieve a historic German bomber that had vanished after being shot down in 1941. Plagued by a major housing shortage in Bahrain, the local Shiite majority took to Google Earth to survey the immense palaces housing the Khalifa royal family, which is made up of the Sunni minority. The tool proved empowering for the underserved Shiite majority. Most recently, a couple of Google Earth users found a suspicious area (pictured) in Burma they believe could be a secret nuclear facility tucked away in the jungle. Whether the image is a key piece of surveillance or just another conspiracy theory remains to be seen, but it’s hard to deny that Google Earth has become a lot more than a simple security threat.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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