Publicly Available Federal Geospatial Information of Little Unique Use to Terrorists

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March 25, 2004

Less than 1 percent of publicly available federal Web sites and databases contain geospatial information not readily available elsewhere that could help terrorists and other hostile forces mount attacks in the United States, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

Geospatial information shows the location and describes key features of particular places -- such as roads and bridges, power plants and power lines, office buildings and factories, military bases, mass transit systems, and parts of the natural environment like forests and lakes.

Although publicly available geospatial information on federal Web sites and in federal databases could potentially help terrorists select and locate a target, attackers are likely to need more detailed and current information -- better acquired from direct observation or other sources, according to the RAND study. These other sources include textbooks, non-government Web sites, trade journals and street maps.

RAND researchers also found no publicly accessible federal geospatial information deemed critical to meeting attackers’ information needs. In addition, the researchers found only four publicly available federal databases that had information that is both useful to potential attackers and could not be obtained from other widely available sources. The four federal databases are no longer being made public by federal agencies.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, questions were raised about whether the federal government makes geospatial information so readily available that terrorists and other potential enemies could exploit this information to plan new attacks. Because of this concern, many federal agencies began restricting some of their publicly available geospatial information, particularly information accessible through the Internet.

The RAND report recommends the federal government work with state and local governments and the private sector to develop a consistent and uniform analytical process that could be used to evaluate the utility and risks associated with publicly available geospatial information.

“Our study suggests that decisionmakers need to use an analytical process for identifying sensitive geospatial information because no ‘one size fits all’ set of guidelines is likely to work,” said John Baker, a RAND technology policy analyst who is lead author of the report titled “Mapping the Risks.” Other authors of the report are Beth Lachman, David Frelinger, Kevin O’Connell, Alexander Hou, Michael Tseng, David Orletsky and Charles Yost, all of RAND.

Federal agencies, state and local governments, industry and other organizations all produce, distribute and use a wide variety of geospatial information. This include maps and nautical charts, aerial and satellite images, and detailed geographic information system databases.

Public access to this vast quantity of federal geospatial information has many benefits for the nation, the RAND study said. For example, the information is used to assist law enforcement agencies, advance scientific knowledge, inform people about environmental risks, help communities prepare and respond to natural disasters and other emergencies, create more accurate maps, assist economic development efforts, and help a wide array of government agencies do their jobs more effectively. In addition, such geospatial information is used to help protect, operate and manage various U.S. critical sites.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency asked the Intelligence Policy Center of RAND’s National Defense Research Institute to undertake the independent assessment of how publicly accessible geospatial information from federal agencies could be exploited by terrorists and other hostile forces.

RAND researchers proposed a framework that can help policymakers evaluate the nature of the potential risks of making particular geospatial information public. For the near-term, the framework asks three questions: Would the information be useful to attackers? Is the information available from other sources? Is the cost of withholding the information from legitimate use greater than the benefit such withholding might provide in increased homeland security?

Over the long-term, the RAND study urges the federal government to develop a more formal and comprehensive model that can assess the homeland security implications of geospatial information within the desired protection levels for U.S. critical infrastructure facilities and installations.

RAND researchers analyzed the general information needs for potential adversaries seeking to attack U.S. critical sites, including infrastructure and other key assets. The researchers concluded that potential attackers -- particularly terrorists -- have substantial flexibility in choosing among potential targets, attack modes, and the types of information they need.

Next researchers reviewed a cross-section of geospatial information about critical sites, including more than 5,000 federal Web pages. Researchers also identified 465 federal sources (programs and major initiatives) providing publicly available geospatial information. They gave closer analysis to 629 federal databases identified as being likely to contain geospatial information about U.S. critical sites, such as power plants, chemical plants, military installations, dams, and public spaces like national monuments.

In addition, researchers examined information from more than 2,000 Web pages to identify more than 300 non-federal sources -- including private, academic, state and local government and foreign sources -- that provide similar geospatial information.

The study was sponsored by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency along with its study partner, the U.S. Geological Survey of the Department of the Interior.

RAND's National Defense Research Institute is a federally funded research and development center supported by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the unified commands, and the defense agencies.

A printed copy of "Mapping the Risks: Assessing the Homeland Security Implications of Publicly Available Geospatial Information" (ISBN: 0-8330-3547-9) can be ordered from RAND's Distribution Services ( or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).


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