A Philosopher's Blog

Too Blur or Not to Blur?

Posted in Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 5, 2009
Washington Public Power Supply System Nuclear ...
Image via Wikipedia

When planning an attack, the more information you have, the better. When trying to defend against an attack, the more information you can deny to the enemy, the better. These facts underlie the concern about high quality online images of American nuclear power plants.

The main worry is that terrorists will use these images to plan out attacks against nuclear power plants. Apparently, the people who attacked Mumbai used online mapping software to help plan their attack and this lends credence to the worry. Obviously, such images would be very useful in planning out an attack. Also important is the fact that the images can be acquired without attracting attention. In contrast, making a physical reconnaissance of a target would be risky for terrorists and could well tip off law enforcement that something is up. The proposed solution is to have a policy for blurring such images to make it more difficult for terrorists to get such information. Dick Cheney‘s house, it has been claimed, is blurred out on Google Earth.

Of course, one obvious problem with this plan is that the images are readily available now. Any terrorists thinking about attacks in the future can just save the images and have them on hand should they decide to plan an attack. However, the blurring of new images could still be effective. Doing so would deny people detailed images of these critical locations, provided that they did not have some other means of acquiring them. Of course, terrorists could simply attack the multitude of sites for which they already have clear photos. As such, the time to blur would have been before the images were posted. To blur now is like covering a child’s eyes to prevent him from seeing streakers only after several of them have already run by.

While blurring such images might help, terrorists have obviously launched effective attacks without them. Terrorists can also acquire information in many other ways, though these might be somewhat more difficult. As such, the value of blurring is probably fairly minimal.

No doubt someone will argue that we should blur the images even if it would have little effect. After all, they might say, blurring the images takes such little effort and could make us a tiny bit safer. Surely that is worth it?

On one hand, that seems reasonable. After all, if blurring the images makes it a tiny bit more difficult for hypothetical terrorists to launch hypothetical attacks in the future, then it seems like something that should be done.

On the other hand, there are some concerns about doing this. One is that blurring out the sites would really do nothing to make us safer. After all, a terrorist is not going to say “curses, we were going to attack the Great Satan‘s nuclear plant, but these blurred images make it impossible! Damn you to hell, Photoshop!” As such, there is no reason to take even the small effort needed to blur things. A second reason is that for the blurring to have any chance of being effective, all publicly available images would have to be blurred. Ensuring this would require new laws and their enforcement. This would, as always, not be free or easy and we should ask if the cost of doing this would be worth the alleged gain in safety. Conservative folks would probably also raise concerns about the government stepping in with more regulation. A third reason is that such moves towards secrecy can encourage the spread of more secrecy. If we start by blurring out nuclear plants, then the logical step is to blur out non-nuclear power plants, and so on to everything that the terrorists might consider attacking. Also, since terrorists have made use of online mapping programs, we need to be worried that they might use Mapquest or Google Earth to find their way to key targets. They can, of course, also use paper maps-so we need to be worried about those as well.

While this seems absurd, that is my point. The same logic used to argue for blurring the photos of the buildings can be used to argue against allowing maps that show their locations to be online. The mere fact that something might have some use to a terrorist hardly seems to justify such action.

Someone might be thinking that because of my view, I would argue that everything about such sites should be publicly available. That, for example, detailed interior maps and the security plans of nuclear plants should be put online.

I do not think that at all-because that would be stupid. That is the sort of information that would be very useful to the wrong sort of people. Also, there is a distinction between what the photos show and this other information. The photos just show the exterior of the plants. They show what a person could see who walked /drove by them or was in a commercial flight that went nearby. In other words, the photos show what is publicly available. They do not show what is hidden from the public eye. This is an important distinction. As such, I do not think that blurring is necessary or even reasonable at this point.

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18 Responses

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  1. Virgil Loveday said, on June 5, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    It’s simple: If you prefer security, blur; if you prefer liberty, don’t blur.

  2. Brian Meyette said, on June 5, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    it’s sheer crap. More scare tactics dredged up by people trying to sensationalize a non-story for the benefit of sheeple who’d rather trade even more liberty for even more perceived “security”. There are two nuclear power plants in my area. I looked up both plants on both google earth and wikimapia; you can’t see diddly for details.

  3. Scott Carleton said, on June 5, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    I linked here through CNN, so please pardon the fact that I am not a regular visitor and not informed of the normal operations of this site.

    I have experience in the Nuclear Industry and the article referenced is merely more scare tactics. Nuclear Power Plants are ridiculously secure. They are literally a fortress.
    However, even if terrorists could break into a power plant, they wouldn’t be able to do anything anyway. It is a useless target for them. There is no weapons material for them to steal, you can’t create a meltdown etc. The only time you would attack a nuclear power plant would be in full scale conventional warfare where you had the resources to take down a country’s entire electrical grid. This does not fall within terrorist’s objectives nor their resources.

    This blog takes a sensible approach. It is simply a slippery slope. You blur these images, then what next?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 5, 2009 at 5:23 pm

      The site is very informal-no real rules about posting comments beyond those of common sense and decency. Thanks for stopping by.

      I have wondered about what a person could do in a nuclear plant. In movies and TV, they apparently can be set to blow up with a few minor button pushes, but that always struck me as unlikely. What I have read does seem to support your claims-there are supposed to be multiple levels of safety devices to prevent bad things from happening.

      Of course, someone could go in a do physical damage to the equipment and try to create a radioactive leak-perhaps that would be what terrorists would try to do.

      • magus71 said, on June 6, 2009 at 2:53 pm

        The primary danger is from an explosives device(s) that could be used to damage the cooling systems; this could lead to a cesium fire, which would be very deadly, as massive amounts of radioactive activity would be carried downwind. It’s essentially what happened at Chernobyl.

        The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has estimated that if this occurred at the Indian Point facility near New York City, all of NYC and about one third of Connecticut would be rendered uninhabitable.

        This is not an estimation of the likely hood of such an attack occurring or being successful, only a battle-damage assessment as to if it did succeed.

        Yes, the reactors are fortresses. And it’s for good reason.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 7, 2009 at 8:26 am

          There is no doubt that a badly damaged reactor would be a serious problem. Fortunately, our reactors are much safer than the Russian reactors. I’m actually amazed that the Russians did not have more accidents.

    • George T said, on June 5, 2009 at 9:02 pm

      In more than half od the security drills, mock attackers defeated security forces in 47% of the scenarios. They caused simunlated meltdowns. The original plan by Khalid Sheik Mohammed was to attack nuclear plants.

  4. kernunos said, on June 5, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    My house is blurred to Mike. :) Seriously.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 5, 2009 at 5:27 pm

      I checked that with Google. They said that you were working on a “full body” tan on your roof when they took the pictures and they needed to blur the whole area to protect people. God bless you Google.

    • kernunos said, on June 6, 2009 at 3:06 pm

      I have to hide my secrets somehow. ;)

  5. magus71 said, on June 6, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    I liked the Google Earth pic where you can see the drunk guy laying on the sidewalk.

  6. Scott Carleton said, on June 6, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    A cesium fire is not what happened at chernobyl. Chernobyl’s reactor (of a type not built anymore nor would it have ever been allowed in america), exploded due to a build up of pressure in the reactor vessel itself. Since their reactor’s don’t have containment buildings, this explosion allowed some radioactive elements into the air such as cesium or iodine.

    If terrorists planted an explosive device and damaged the cooling, what’s known as a loss of coolant accident (LOCA), then you would have water that flash vaporizes into steam and is still contained in the containment. The reactor fuel would not be touched and there would be no cesium fire.

    Even if the plant does meltdown, there is minimal risk of danger to the surrounding area. Three Mile Island experienced a partial meltdown and no one was injured or accumulated a higher dose of radiation relative to normal background radiation.

    • magus71 said, on June 7, 2009 at 12:57 am

      The issue being if they blew a hole in the bottom of a pool where the rods are stored, all of the water would drain.

      As I stated: “massive amounts of radioactive activity would be carried downwind.” That is what happened at Chernobyl, as you also sated.” this explosion allowed some radioactive elements into the air such as cesium or iodine.” And here’s a quote from a report to Congress concerning reactor security:
      “In the Chernobyl accident, the reactor’s protective barriers were breached when an out-of-control nuclear reaction led to a fierce graphite fire that caused a significant part of the radioactive core to be blown into the atmosphere.”

      And yes, force on force simulations have resulted in the “terrorists” being able to cause a meltdown in about 50% of cases.

      Here’s what scientists say would happen if things went wrong at the Indian Point facility:

      http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_power/nuclear_power_risk/sabotage_and_attacks_on_reactors/impacts-of-a-terrorist-attack.html

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 7, 2009 at 8:33 am

        One key question is what sort of force would be required to capture a nuclear plant and hold it long enough to do the sort of damage needed to cause a disaster? Terrorists could kill a lot of people by taking out, for example, a dam. But is it reasonable to expect them to have that capability? I would suspect they would hit softer targets first, such as parts of the power grid.

      • magus71 said, on June 7, 2009 at 10:47 am

        As I said, i wasn’t commenting as to the probability of this happening. Though a jetliner flown into the containment vessel would do the trick.

  7. T. J. Babson said, on June 6, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Don’t blur.

    And let us buy chemicals again, too.

    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/chemistry.html

    The target of this operation, which involved more than two dozen police officers and federal agents, was not an international terrorist ring but the couple’s home business, United Nuclear Scientific Supplies, a mail-order outfit that serves amateur scientists, students, teachers, and law enforcement professionals. From the outside, company headquarters – at the end of a dirt road high in the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque – looks like any other ranch house in New Mexico, with three dogs, a barbecue, and an SUV in the driveway. But not every suburban household boasts its own particle accelerator. A stroll through the backyard reveals what looks like a giant Van de Graaff generator with a pipe spiraling out of it, marked with CAUTION: RADIATION signs. A sticker on the SUV reads POWERED BY HYDROGEN, while another sign by the front gate warns, TRESPASSERS WILL BE USED FOR SCIENCE EXPERIMENTS.

  8. Scott Carleton said, on June 7, 2009 at 11:17 am

    @Magus

    Our Containments can easily withstand a jetliner crashing into them. I have done the tests myself. We actually calculate the impact of fire, earthquake and jetliner crash all at once and the containment still would not be breached.

    Please do not cite Union of Concerned Scientists reports. First off, calling them ‘scientists’ is laughable and second, they have a definite agenda.

    The spent fuel pool you are referring to, is just that a pool. If you placed a bomb in a normal swimming pool that is surrounded by concrete all around, what hole would you be creating in a blast? If you somehow even did get all the water out of the spent fuel pool than you would just have a lot of hot metal, there is nothing to burn. The water in the spent fuel pool is to protect operators and workers from the radiation and to absorb the heat from the fuel.

    Back to Chernobyl: It was an explosion within the reactor vessel. Versus an explosion outside of the reactor vessel. An explosion outside of the reactor would just create a loss of coolant situation, similar to three mile island and the same layers upon layers of safety systems would go into effect and prevent any release of radiation.


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