EV LEADKeyhole Inc/Public DomainEarthViewer images of Pine Valley, California circa 2004.

Before we used Google Earth and Google Maps to find our way, the CIA used similar tools for spy missions in Iraq.

The earliest version of the CIA's satellite imagery software, called EarthViewer, was actually invented at the turn of the millennium. Starting in the early 2000s, the CIA used it to pinpoint movement in Iraqi warehouses or camps, since it showed topography changes over time.

EarthViewer looked pretty different from modern-day Google Earth, but the software laid the foundation for it, Toni Hiley, executive director of the CIA Museum, tells Tech Insider.

"This technology started in our world for operational reasons, but later crossed over to the private sector to benefit mankind," she says.

Since the late 1990s, the CIA has run its own venture capital firm called In-Q-Tel. It has invested in all kinds of Silicon Valley start-ups, including what would eventually become Google Earth.

EV2002Keyhole Inc/Public DomainEarthViewer circa 2002.

The software development company Keyhole built the digital map's prototype in 2001, but In-Q-Tel acquired and started pouring money into it two years later.

EV 2004Keyhole Inc/Public DomainEarthViewer images of San Francisco circa 2004.

The CIA then worked closely with other intelligence organizations to improve EarthViewer and make the 3D images more realistic.

Using the software's satellite images, the US military could identify targets, plan routes, and study the movement of Iraqi troops over time in the 2000s.

EVNSA Archive/Public DomainEarthViewer images that show changes in an Iraqi manufacturing facility over time.


News organizations also licensed EarthViewer's beta version for Iraq War coverage. CNN and Fox News displayed aerial images in the corner of the screen, flying over Baghdad and simulating dramatic swoops down to street level.

google earthGoogle EarthGoogle Earth today.

EarthViewer soon caught the attention of Google, which bought and renamed it in 2004. After more investment, the software eventually became Google Earth. Features from Google Earth were later integrated into Google Maps, like Street View.

Without the CIA's financial help, it wouldn't be the software we know today, Hiley says.