For what started as a cool app that gave normal people at-will access to satellite images for the first time, Google Earth has become a platform for much more than just wasting time at the office, or virtual tourism.
Officials in Iran were outraged late last week when a Google Earth image revealed a Jewish Star of David on the roof of Iran Air at the Tehran Airport, apparently placed there by Israeli engineers and construction workers who built the facility for the Shah in 1979, before the Islamic Revolution.
Given its location at an airport, it's odd that there is so far no explanation why it took more than 30 years for the symbol to be spotted by passengers or crew on the thousands of planes that must have flown over it during the past 30 years.
It hasn't sparked as much outrage, but the blog Geographic Travels with Catholicgauze used Google Earth images to argue that Glen Beck's conservative rally on the National Mall in Washington D.C. and the event The Daily Show's Jon Stewart's staged to make fun of it drew approximately the same number of people.
Innovative thieves in England have used Google Earth imagery heavily to target churches with lead roofs that can be stripped off and sold for scrap for as much as $2400 per metric ton, compared to $900 in 2008.
About 8,000 churches have filed insurance claims to replace stolen roofs during the past three years, at a cost of 23 million pounds, according to a Church of England's estate commissioner, who said many of the churches have been hit several times after replacing the lead to maintain their historical integrity. One church has been hit 14 times.
Misuse isn't always political or criminal, though. Satellite images helped boost the tourist business for this heart-shaped island in the Adriatic Sea, because there's no more romantic spot on Earth than Galesnjak, Croatia in the spring.
Of course, Google Earth has also been used to find both human ancestors and lost civilizations which, along with increasingly poor script writing at LucasFilm, is putting Indiana Jones out of business.
You have to wonder what it says about our distant-early warning system when NORAD's annual Santa-tracker really has the same frisson of the thermonuclear destruction of Christmas when Google Earth is a key part of the experience rather than the radar, satellites, SantaCams and jet fighter aircraft from 47 installations across northern Canada and Alaska.
Google Earth makes it a lot easier, of course, but somehow, it's just not the same.